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Why Systems Fail

Why Systems Fail

Since failing systems are incapable of structural reform, collapse is the only way forward.

Systems fail for a wide range of reasons, but I’d like to focus on two that are easy to understand but hard to pin down.

1. Systems are accretions of structures and modifications laid down over time.Each layer adds complexity which is viewed at the time as a solution.

This benefits insiders, as their job security arises from the need to manage the added complexity. The new layer may also benefit an outside constituency that quickly becomes dependent on the new layer for income. (Think defense contractors, consultants, non-profits, etc.)

In short order, insiders and outsiders alike habituate to the higher complexity, and everyone takes it for granted that “this is how things work.” Few people can visualize alternatives, and any alternative that reduces the budget, payroll or power of the existing system is rejected as “unworkable.”

In this set of incentives, the “solution” is always: we need more money. If only we had another $1 million, $1 billion or $1 trillion, we could fix what’s broken.

But increasing the budget can’t fix what’s broken because it doesn’t address the underlying sources of systemic failure.

Those benefiting from the status quo will fight tooth and nail to retain their jobs and benefits, and so deep reform is essentially impossible, as the insiders and constituencies of each layer resist any reform that might diminish their security/income.

As a result, new layers rarely replaces previous layers; the system becomes more and more inefficient and costly as every new layer must find work-arounds and kludgy fixes to function with the legacy layers.

Eventually, the system becomes unaffordable and/or too ineffective to fulfill its mission.

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