If you want more on why it is difficult to understand systems

If you’d like to know more about some of the characteristics of systems and of our own minds that makes it difficult to understand systems and to make good decisions about them, use these links to read  useful sections from Dӧrner. Click on the link you want to go to the section of Dӧrner’s work that covers the topic.


What conditions exist in the systems in our world that make them hard to understand?

§         Intransparency

§         Complexity      and the difference in complexity with and without experience

§         Interrelationships with their "side effects and long-term repercussions"       and changes of the whole over time

§         Time changes

§         Exponential changes

What characteristics of ourselves and of information make a difference in success with systems?

§         Assumptions, recognized and not

§         Information without methods to know what it "means"      overload


A Partial List of Quotations from Dörner's The Logic of Failure in Page Order (only the quotations for the links above)


The use of these quotations does not indicate Dietrich Dörner's endorsement of the content on this webpage. Previously, Dörner gave permission to use these quotations as a resource for others. I have sent an email request to use these quotations here. If he does not agree, we will, of course, remove these quotations immediately.



Quotation from Dietrich Dörner's Logic of Failure


…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.…


[In the past], [t]he 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? [bold added]


All are, at least in part, “intransparent”; one cannot see everything one would like to see. And all develop independent of external control, according to their own internal dynamic.


Complexity is the label we will give to the existence of many interdependent variables in a given system. The more variables and the greater their interdependence, the greater that system’s complexity. Greater complexity places high demands on a planner’s capacities to gather information, integrate findings, and design effective actions. The links between the variables oblige us to attend to a great many features simultaneously, and that, concomitantly, makes it impossible for us to undertake only one action in a complex system.


A system of variables is “interrelated” if an action that affects or is meant to affect one part of the system will also always affect other parts of it. Interrelated guarantees that an action aimed at one variable will have side effects and long-term repercussions. A large number of variables will make it easy to overlook them. [bold added]


Complexity is not an objective factor but a subjective one. Take, for example, the everyday activity of driving a car.… The main difference between these two individuals [the beginner and the experienced driver] is that the experienced driver reacts to many “supersignals.” For her, a traffic situation is not made up of a multitude of elements that must be interpreted individually. It is a “gestalt”…


Supersignals reduce complexity, collapsing a number of features into one,


The dynamics inherent in systems make it important to understand developmental tendencies. We cannot content ourselves with observing and analyzing situations at any single moment but must instead try to determine where the whole system is heading over time. For many people this proves to be an extremely difficult task. [bold added]


[Gives Chernobyl case of intransparency.] [I]ntransparency¾the condition in which decision makers “must make decisions affecting a system whose momentary features they can see only partially, unclearly, in blurred and shadowy outline¾or possibly not at all.”


If we want to operate within a complex and dynamic system, we have to know not only what its current status is but what its status will be or could be in the future, and we have to know how certain actions we take will influence the situation. For this we need “structural knowledge,” knowledge of how the variables in a system are related and how they influence one another.”


The totality of such assumptions in an individual’s mind¾assumptions about the simple or complex links and the one-way or reciprocal influences between variable¾constitute what we call that individual’s “reality model.” A reality model may be explicit, always available to the individual in a conscious form, or it can be implicit, with the individual himself unaware that he is operating on a certain set of assumptions and unable to articulate what those assumptions are.


[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.


And it is not just the normal citizen who lacks time to gather information. Politicians faced with the need to make a decision will rarely have time to digest even readily available information, much less to pursue new lines of inquiry.


We are constantly deciding how much information is enough.… We need, of course, to do more with information than simply gather it. We need to arrange it into an overall picture, a model of the reality we are dealing with. [bold added] Formless collections of data about random aspects of a situation merely add to the situation’s impenetrability and are no aid to decision making. We need a cohesive picture that lets us determine what is important and what unimportant, what belongs together and what does not¾in short, that tells us what our information means. This kind of “structural knowledge” will allow us to find order in apparent chaos.”


A system is a network of many variables in causal relationships to one another.


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.



At the moment, we don’t have other problems, so why think about them? Or, to put it better still, why think that we should think about them?


Another reason is informational overload. Participants are given a lot of information, and to solve their problems, the have to gather a lot of data and address many aspects of the situation. There just doesn’t seem to be time enough to worry about problems that are not immediately pressing.


One excellent way to maintain a hypothesis indefinitely is to ignore information that does not conform to it.… We are infatuated with the hypotheses we propose because we assume they give us power over things. We therefore avoid exposing them to the harsh light of real experience, and we prefer to gather only information that supports our hypotheses.



We live and act in a four-dimensional system. In addition to the three dimensions of space, this system includes the fourth dimension of time, which moves in one direction, and that direction is toward the future…. We rarely have trouble dealing with configurations in space. If we’re not entirely sure of what we’re looking at, we can take another look and resolve our uncertainty. We can normally look at forms in space again and again and in this way precisely determine their particular configuration. That is not true of configurations in time. A time configuration is available for examination only in retrospect. …


Because we are constantly presented with whole spatial configurations, we readily think in such terms. …


By contrast, we often overlook time configurations and treat successive steps in a temporal development as individual events.

110, 111-112, 116-117

Children, and many an adult, will be amazed at the answer to the following problem. There is one water lily growing in a pond with a surface area of 130,000 square feet. In early spring, the lily has one pad, and each lily pad has a surface area of one square foot. After a week, the lily has two pads, after the following week, four pads. After sixteen weeks the pond is half covered. How much longer will it take before the whole pond is covered? [The answer: if constant growth, “only one more week.” Dörner covers other examples, including AIDS, and experiments.]


A quantity is said to be growing “exponentially” when its value at any time … is its previous value multiplied by a particular number, the same number each time. … In a linear process, a quantity increases by the same amount, not the same multiple, at each step. … A number of psychological experiments have demonstrated that an incapacity to deal with nonlinear time configurations is a general phenomenon.


Clearly, … people tend to badly misjudge non-linear [exponential] growth.


If you want more quotations from The Logic of Failure

For who Dörner is and the basics about systems and systems thinking, click here. 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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