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Why Systems Fail and Problems Sprout Anew


Why Systems Fail and Problems Sprout Anew
Gall's Basic Systems Axioms
In conclusion
The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity
Cipolla's Five Basic Laws are:
Hazards of System Building

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Review of the book. Systemantics; how systems work... and especially how they fail by John Gall. Pocket Books, 1978


At last those concerned with social change have a basic textbook to explain why 'things generally are indeed not working very well' despite our many efforts. As is remarked on the cover: 'Have you ever wondered why the unsinkable Titanic sank... or the poor in India eat better bread than the rich in America... or hospital patients are blamed for not getting well... or why, in general, things that don't work badly don't work at all ?' Similar questions are of deep concern to those working in international organizations.

The author, John Gall, explains his point of departure in the following words:

'The religious person may blame it on. original sin. The historian may cite the force of trends such as population growth and industrialization. The sociologist offers reasons rooted in the peculiarities of human associations. Reformers blame it all on 'the system', and propose new systems that would, they assert, guarantee a brave new world of justice, peace, and abundance. Everyone, it seems, has his own idea of what the problem is and how it can be corrected. But all agree on one point- that their own system would work very well if only it were universally adopted.

The point of view espoused in this essay is more radical and at the same time more pessimistic. Stated as succinctly as possible: the fundamental problem does not lie in any particular system but rather in systems as such. Salvation, if it is attainable at all, even partially, is to be sought in a deeper understanding of the ways of systems, not simply in a criticism of the errors of a particular system'. (page 16)

Gall's book takes the reader step by step through a series of explanations necessary to an appropriate understanding of 'how systems work... and especially how they fail' (the subtitle of the book). For as he says 'men do not yet understand the basic laws governing the behavior of complex organizations'. Some of the axioms that he has so cleverly grouped together have been known to us or have formed the subject of secret suspicions we have shared in confidence with close friends. But here we find these matters brought into the open at last in 'a first approach' to a systematic exposition of the fundamental principles- the first attempt 'to deal with the cussedness of systems in a fundamental, logical way, by getting at the basic rules of their behavior'

He cites with humble gratitude the giants who paved the way for his efforts:

  • Murphy: If anything can go wrong, it will'.
  • Korzybski, author of General Semantics, who contributed: 'a vaulting effort at a comprehensive explanation of Why Things Don't Work,'; and not forgetting
  • Potter, author of One-upmanship; nor Parkinson (Awarded the Noble Prize in 1977 by the Association for the Promotion of Humour in Intentional Affairs), author of Parkinson's Law and other studies in administration, whose central premise was that Work expands to fill the time available

'Systemantics' is such an essential work for those working in (and especially with) international organizations that it is important that they should not be discouraged by any belief that it is primarily concerned with matters outside their frame of reference. For this reason we list below the 'Basic Systems Axioms, etc' from the book with indications as to how (in the reviewer's opinion) they relate to the domain of international organizations in particular (rather than to the full range of systems created by humans, for such is the wide applicability of the author's insights). It is however essential to read the text to gain a full understanding of the application of these principles and all the consequences resulting from them.

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