Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It (March, 2018)
Due to their incredible complexity, our modern systems—from healthcare to travel, finance to media—are primed for failure. And things are only getting worse. In his fiercely anticipated book Meltdown, András TilCsik offers a timely remedy. Not only a convincing diagnosis of why complexity creates failure in systems, it’s a practical guidebook to preventing the next disaster—before it strikes.
“As technology advances, it brings an explosion of complexity and interdependence that can threaten our most critical systems and organizations in unforeseen ways. Meltdown is essential reading for anyone who seeks to understand these dangers and what can be done to address them.”— Martin Ford, Author of Rise of the Robots
András Tilcsik is one of the world’s Top 40 Professors Under 40, and one of thirty management thinkers most likely to shape the future of organizations. He is also co-author of Meltdown: Why Our Systems Fail and What We Can Do About It (March 2018)—a bold and clear-sighted sourcebook for anyone seeking to grasp how systems are prone to failure, and how we can prevent collapses of all sizes before they occur. An Associate Professor of Strategic Management at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Tilcsik developed and teaches the award-winning course “Catastrophic Failure in Organizations.” In his teaching—and throughout Meltdown—he explains the paradox of progress: that as modern society demands more capable systems, they become more complex by necessity. From nuclear energy to aerospace engineering, Wall Street economics to the politics of social media, we live entangled in staggering complexity—and that also means tiny mistakes (simple accidents!) can lead to devastating catastrophes. Co-written with Chris Clearfield, Meltdown accomplishes three vital things: it explains why complexity leads to failure, reveals the common factors between all disasters, no matter how large or insignificant, and sets down a series of practical strategies that corporations, governments, and individuals can all take up to keep themselves safe. As a proposal, Meltdown received the prestigious Financial Times/McKinsey & Company Bracken Bower Prize for “the best business proposal by authors under 35.”
One of Canadian Business’s Change Agents, Tilcsik holds the Canada Research Chair in Strategy, Organizations, and Society. In his award-winning MBA course “Catastrophic Failure in Organizations,” managers from all sorts of backgrounds study headline-grabbing failures and share their own experiences with everyday breakdowns. The United Nations calls it the best course on disaster risk management in a business school. He is also chief sociologist of the Creative Destruction Lab, one of the world’s fastest-growing startup accelerators. His research has been cited in testimonies to committees of the U.S. Congress and covered in media outlets like The New York Times, The Economist, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Huffington Post, Slate, and Freakonomics Radio.
In addition, he has received several awards from the American Sociological Association, including the W. Richard Scott Award for Distinguished Scholarship, the Mark Granovetter Prize for Best Article in Economic Sociology, and the James D. Thompson Award. He has been an invited speaker at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, MIT, the Wharton School, the World Bank, the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, the Rotman Graduate Business Council, and many other institutions. As a Fellow of the Michael Lee-Chin Institute for Corporate Citizenship, he is also studying corporate practices that reduce the risk and impact of environmental disasters. He is a graduate of Harvard University (Ph.D., A.M., and A.B.) and the United World College of the Atlantic in Wales, where he also served as an Auxiliary Coastguard in Her Majesty’s Coastguard Rescue Service.
Modern society relies on systems—massive, interconnected processes that structure our lives, extending from the highest levels of business and government down to the personal and domestic. Our health, livelihoods, relationships, and safety all rely on them. But they are not infallible. In fact, their very complexity makes them increasingly vulnerable to breakdown. Today, as actors within their web, we are much more likely to make tiny errors; but these small mistakes can now lead to tremendous, global disasters, in terms of bankruptcy and economic collapse as well as human tragedy.
So how do we cope? How can we choose, travel, buy, and build—safely—in the shadow of such complexity? In this talk, András Tilcsik offers much-need answers, giving us the tools we need to understand why, and how, our systems are susceptible to human error, and how we can learn how to thrive within them. Taking us on a tour of modern breakdowns—from Fukushima to Flint, Wall Street to the Gulf of Mexico, terrorist attacks in Paris to a debacle at the Oscars—he reveals how each seemingly unrelated incident instead shares several key elements. Then, based on his original research into diversity, strategic management, catastrophic failure, and organizational behavior, he unpacks practical solutions we can all adopt. These are strategies and approaches we can use in every sector—the corporate to non-profit, civil to military—to ensure that we not only create smart systems, but ride the inherent complexity of those we inhabit.
Living today means navigating complexity—whether you’re a multinational or a mom-and-pop shop. With Tilcsik’s help, you’ll be primed to face the full complication of modern life and avoid the next meltdown.
Today, unethical behavior is everywhere in the headlines. From health care fraud to cyber-attacks, rogue employees to financial obfuscations, the last few decades have seen a steady influx of stories about professional wrongdoing—with massive consequences. But conventional thinking on solutions is flawed. It’s not all about individual bad apples, who can be easily flushed out and punished. No—research shows that it’s the increasing complexity of our systems that’s creating an ever-more fertile ground for misconduct.
In this talk, acclaimed change agent András Tilcsik takes audiences on a tour of contemporary malpractice—Volkswagen Dieselgate, Wells Fargo’s fake account scandal, unscrupulous surgeons, how a reporter published falsified stories in The New York Times for years—to explain how organizational and technological complexity makes systems ripe for exploitation. Touching on security flaws in new, connected tech—think driverless cars or ‘smart’ household devices—or on the accounting schemes of corporate giants like Enron, Tilcsik delivers much-needed solutions. These are ideas that will shatter common assumptions about how to lead—ideas that can help you avoid the ethical loopholes just waiting to be exploited in your organization.
Corporate diversity: it’s one of today’s most urgent topics. But how does it actually influence teams and organizations? According to cutting-edge research, diversity is indeed beneficial—but not because it brings more diverse perspectives to the table. Rather, it helps by making things more difficult (in effect, by erecting speed bumps that slow down our decision-making processes). Being in a diverse team feels less comfortable than being in a homogenous team; it threatens to be a source of interpersonal friction. And that makes us more skeptical, critical, and more vigilant, all of which make us more likely to catch errors—and avoid failure.
In this keynote, András Tilcsik brings forward the newest and best research on how diversity can help us—and what techniques leaders can employ to change the makeup of their own organizations. He’ll reveal how most diversity programs prove largely ineffective—and even sometimes counterproductive—despite the vast amounts of money spent on them. He then outlines what does work: how voluntary, rather than mandatory, diversity training is a better idea; how formal, structured mentorship programs for junior employees are so necessary; and why we should track diversity in an appeal to people’s inclination to be fair-minded. To Tilcsik, diversity is vital. But it’s the soft tools that work the best: tools that don’t try to strong-arm managers into giving up control, or enforce a list of dos and don’ts. Instead, to succeed with diversity, we need to engage managers, expose them to a wider variety of people, and appeal to their natural desire to do good.