Welcome! Within these pages, I will explore the many facets of compelling ideas I've encountered with the hope that you will find inspiration for your own life. I encourage you to explore some of the Big Ideas that I support with my time and energy. Also, check out the Spark Chamber where we can explore possibilities together.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Complex systems fail in complex ways

With all of the talk about gun control, the Boston Marathon bombing, the fertilizer factory explosion, terrorism, etc. the expression "complex systems fail in complex ways" keeps jumping to mind. This saying was drilled into my head during my engineering days. The lesson of the expression is that when you have a complex system with many layers, controls, redundancies and human processes, cataclysmic failure is caused by the highly improbable concurrence of a number of small "innocent" failures rather than a single smoking gun. 

Take the classic example of the Three Mile Island disaster where there were four distinct failure modes (learn more) that eventually led to the largest nuclear reactor crisis in United States history.  In normal operation any one of the failure events would have been noticed and corrected by other controls and safeguards, but in this case, they all lined up just right so that the system failed.

Here is a great read ... How Complex Systems Fail. It's only 4 pages and provides a wonderful overview. I strongly recommend that everyone take a moment to read it. Now take another moment to digest it.

Keep this in mind when you ponder the Monday morning quarterbacking: Why didn't the FBI take action on the Russian tip? Why didn't the company report its chemicals to Homeland Security? Why don't we identify people with mental health issues? Questions like these all imply that redoubling efforts to solve one issue will make us safer, when in reality, it is more like wack-a-mole. Fix one problem, and another pops out. In fact, layering on more controls and processes may have the opposite effect -- making the system more complex and therefore subject to even more complex modes of failure. 

When we look at our world and observe that there is too much poverty, not enough education, too much malnutrition, not enough economic growth, to much violence, or any other "problem", it is helpful to keep in mind that these are outcomes of complex systems.  There won't be a silver bullet, and we can't just pass a law or fund a new program to make it better.  Instead, we need to look at the problem from a different perspective and think about the system as a whole.

This is why fostering innovation is so important.  It is through innovation that the system can be simplified or made more successful.  It is through innovation that new approaches can be tried, tested and allowed to succeed (or fail).  It is through innovation that big ideas can disrupt the status quo.  By creating an environment that encourages and supports innovation, we give ourselves the best chance for changing our world for the better.



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