Let’s say you wanted to create the most boring sounding field possible. You might call it “systems science” and choose topics of study like dams, oil rigs, and water treatment plants. But Chris Clearfield and András Tilcsik will have thwarted your plans, producing as they have a page-turner about the paradox of progress: “as our systems have become more capable, they have also become more complex and less forgiving, creating an environment where small mistakes can turn into massive failures.”
Meltdown covers “large-scale meltdowns like BP’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and the global financial crisis” as well as smaller failures that “seem to stem from very different problems,” but have similar underlying causes and means of prevention. “That shared DNA means that failures in one industry can provide lessons for people in other fields: dentists can learn from pilots, and marketing teams from SWAT teams.” In prose that’s both gripping and easily digested, Meltdown summarizes research on “why diversity helps us avoid big mistakes and what Everest climbers and Boeing engineers can teach us about the power of simplicity” as well as “how film crews and ER teams manage surprises—and how their approach could have saved the mismanaged Facebook IPO and Target’s failed Canadian expansion.”
Clearfield and Tilcsik demonstrate a knack for choosing fascinating subjects like hackers who can use an antenna and a laptop to control your insulin pump and the La La Land flub at the 2017 Oscars. They also abide their own lessons in the imparting. Since systems are ripe for failure when they’re (1) complicated and (2) tightly coupled (meaning lots of stuff is closely tied together in a way that begs for a dominos-style reaction), the authors dumb down the material covered as much as possible (e.g., “TEPCO’s engineers worked in what psychologists call a wicked environment. In such environments, it’s hard to check how good our predictions and decisions are. It’s like trying to learn how to cook without being able to taste the food. Without feedback, experience doesn’t make us into better decision makers.”). Then they reformulate key points so as to add in a little slack for the reader to catch up. The result? A failure-free work of nonfiction.