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Meltdown: Why modern systems are crashing

Complexity creates conditions ripe for failure. National Business Book Award winner on lessons from plane crashes, oil spills and dumb business decisions.

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Author Christopher Clearfield sitting in Central Park in Manhattan Christopher Clearfield is one of the co-authors of Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It, which won the 2019 National Business Book Award (Image provided)

We’re in the golden age of meltdowns, say this year’s National Business Book Award winners Christopher Clearfield and András Tilcsik.

A breakdown in protocol led to the infamous 2017 Oscars gaffe when presenters declared La La Land best picture, instead of Moonlight, the rightful winner. But meltdowns can be far more serious; consider the 2014 Flint water crisis and the fatal D.C. Metro train accident in 2009.

Complexity can create conditions ripe for failure, the co-authors of Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It, say. 

“What we mean by complexity is that there are unexpected interactions in the system,” says Clearfield. “If you were to draw the way that things work together, it looks more like a web than a line. When a system is like a web, you can have these unexpected interactions that were not built in and were not anticipated.”

The book doesn’t just identify failure; it also examines the way to minimize risks big and small. CPA Canada talked to Clearfield about what we can learn from previous meltdowns and the opportunities moving forward. 

CPA CANADA: How do you become interested in systems and systems failure, and how did this book come to be with your co-author András Tilcsik?
CC:
I was a science geek as an undergrad. I studied physics and biochemistry and engineering and programming. I was on my way to graduate school when I got intercepted by Wall Street. I ended up with this very kind of front row seat during the financial crisis in the U.S. and just kind of started this informal observation that I was musing about in my brain, that bank A is going do better in this crisis than bank B. So I started to wonder about putting more rigour behind that observation. 

András and I were friends as undergraduates together at Harvard. We just kind of came together and started chatting about this stuff and realized that he was looking at when organizations do things that are different than what they say they were going to do. So we started this really interesting collaboration that really took off after Deepwater Horizon blew up. I was like, oh, wow, this is the same kind of thing. It’s the same interaction of systems and technology and organizational factors and decision making that led to this big accident. If companies and if our world is going to have more and more of these things, then people are going to have to start to think about this stuff differently. So that was what planted the seed for the start of our work and our research together.

Book cover of András Tilcsik and Chris Clearfield's 'Meltdown'

CPA CANADA: One of the things you talk about in the book is simplicity and transparency as a way to minimize risk. What does transparency mean in a complex system?
CC:
Transparency is the ability to understand our system in real time. There are times when we can’t simplify our systems—we’re stuck with that web. But if we can understand the state of the system a little bit better, we can reduce that complexity and we can make better decisions as time goes on.

CPA CANADA: We also can’t just go back to a simpler time. There’s still a place for using AI and big data in the development of a complex systems.
CC:
Exactly. We are not Luddites. We do not think that the clock should be turned back. I think that one of the paradoxes that we see in our world is that we get so much benefit from these systems. They make us more efficient. They make supply chains more efficient. They make businesses better. But the thing we have to do is be able to manage them in a fundamentally different way than the way we manage a simpler system.

CPA CANADA: Are there some examples of companies that have made real changes to complex systems to combat this problem?
CC:
I think Google is a good example of this. Google has the attitude of trying to break their systems. They really focus on reliability as one of the fundamental things of what they do. So, when they build a new product, they also build the reliability at the same time and by sort of trying to bundle that together at the beginning rather than adding it as a kind of bolted-on process, they’re able to do a good job of making sure that they have that kind of transparency built in from the start.

CPA CANADA: How did you feel to win this award and to have your work recognized in this way?
CC:
It feels amazing. One of the things that is really nice about the National Business Book Award is that it’s really this recognition of people who are thinking and writing deeply and carefully about a problem. All of the books that were nominated and shortlisted this year were just incredible and really interesting. We’re really honoured to have won. We’re really humbled, but we’re proud of the work that we’ve done.

HIT THE BOOKS

Read our interviews with 2018’s NBBA winner and finalist. And if you’re looking for some new additions to your library, check out our list of top business books.

CPA Canada was proud to support the 2019 NBBA as an award ceremony partner. We congratulate Christopher Clearfield, András Tilcsik and the other fine authors who were selected as finalists. This prestigious program plays an important role in fostering robust Canadian business conversations.