Who Is Dietrich Dörner? What’s a System? Why Is Systems Thinking Necessary?

Dörner’s book can be a life-changing book; however, it is provided here because of the practical value of its content in helping educators and citizens in general understand the multiple customers of higher education. It is also useful in helping students understand disciplines that are complex, detailed, and interconnected—terms that Dörner explains.

This webpage provides:

§         Who Is Dietrich Dörner?

§         Why the Title The Logic of Failure?

§         What Is a System?

§         Why Is Systems Thinking Necessary?


Who Is Dietrich Dörner?


Dietrich Dörner was “director of the Cognitive Anthropology Project at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin.”

For the above phrase and an overview of Dörner’s value,
see a Business Week review 9/16/1996 by Peter Coy
available at http://www.businessweek.com/1996/38/b349362.htm


Dietrich Dörner. The Logic of Failure: Why Things Go Wrong and What We Can Do to Make Them Right. Translated by Rita and Robert Kimber. New York, New York: Metropolitan Books, 1996. The page numbers listed on this webpage are from this text.



Why the Title The Logic of Failure?

Failure does not strike like a bolt from the blue; it develops gradually according to its own logic. As we watch individuals attempt to solve problems, we will see that complicated situations seem to elicit habits of thought that set failure in motion from the beginning. From that point, the continuing complexity of the task and the growing apprehension of failure encourage methods of decision making that make failure even more likely and then inevitable.


We can learn, however. People court failure in predictable ways.… We need only apply the ample power of our minds to understanding and then breaking the logic of failure. (p. 10)

What Is a System?

Dӧrner defines a system as “a network of many variables in causal relationships to one another.” (p. 73) A system may, however, best be understood by this visual image:

[W]e could liken a decision maker in a complex situation of a chess player whose set has many more than the normal number of pieces, several dozen, say. Furthermore, these chessmen are all linked to each other by rubber bands, so that the player cannot move just one figure alone. Also, his men and his opponent’s men can move on their own and in accordance with the rules the player does not fully understand or about which he has mistaken assumptions. And, to top things off, some of his own and his opponent’s men are surrounded by a fog that obscures their identity. (p. 42)

Why Is Systems Thinking Necessary?

…we face an array of closely¾though often subtly¾linked problems. The modern world is made up of innumerable interrelated subsystems, and we need to think in terms of these interrelations. In the past, such considerations were less important. What did the growth of Los Angeles matter to a Sacramento Valley farmer a hundred years ago? Nothing. Today, however aqueducts running the length of the state make northern and southern Californians bitter competitors for water. Of what concern to us were religious differences in Islam forty years ago? Apparently none. The global interrelations of today make such dissension important everywhere.…


The need to see a problem embedded in the context of other problems rarely arose. For us, however, this is the rule, not the exception. Do our habits of thought measure up to the demands of thinking in systems? What errors are we prone to when we have to take side effects and long-term repercussions into account? (pp. 5-6) 

One basic error accounts for all catastrophes: none of the participants realized that they were dealing with a system in which, though not every element interacted with every other, many elements interacted with many others.… They did not take into account the side effects and repercussions of certain measures. They dealt with the entire system, not as a system but as a bundle of independent minisystems. And dealing with systems in this way breeds trouble: if we do not concern ourselves with the problems we do not have, we soon have them. (pp. 86-87)


For all of the quotations from The Logic of Failure and these topics, click here:

  • What is a system?
  • Why is systems thinking necessary?
  • What conditions exist in the systems in our world that make them hard to understand?
  • Can systems be self-correcting?
  • Who thinks well? (Who produces the good outcomes they wanted?)
  • Who thinks poorly? (Who produces negative outcomes and outcomes that are opposite to what they declared was their intent?)
  • What attributes do not guarantee good thinking?
  • How does failure in thinking escalate?
  • How can failure escalate?
  • How do failures in thinking produce cynicism and fundamental disregard for those people and goals that the decision makers claimed they wanted to help?


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WCJC Department:

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Last Updated:

2012 – 06/04

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