Normal accidents, motivation, causes and effects

Photo by EKavet


If I would ask you to rank order the following causes of death in the U.S. between the years 1990 and 2000 in from the most common cause to the least common, how will you rank it?

Tobacco, poor diet and physical inactivity, motor vehicle accidents, firearms (guns), illicit drug use

If you are like most people, you probably made at least one (if not more) mistakes in this ranking. The actual ranking is according to the order in which the causes are written down. Usually people put too much emphasis on motor vehicles and not enough on tobacco and poor diet.


Well, there are many reasons but one of them is the fact that people think in events and not in processes. It is easier to imagine somebody dying because of a car accident than imagining the same person slowly dying from physical inactivity.

There is a human tendency to find discrete causes for effects born by extended, hard to observe, processes. We decide very easily that something specific is the cause of a certain effect, when in fact, the effect has many causes, and have been created over a long time.

In his article Blowup, Malcolm Gladwell explains the distinction the Yale University sociologist Charles Perrow made between a “normal accident” and a “real accident”:

By “normal” Perrow does not mean that it is frequent; he means that it is the kind of accident one can expect in the normal functioning of a technologically complex operation. Modern systems, Perrow argues, are made up of thousands of parts, all of which interrelate in ways that are impossible to anticipate

Organizations today are so complex that rarely something happens in them that can be attributed to one cause or one person. There are so many layers, seen and unseen, of culture, rules, habits, heuristics, and communication problems. 30 or 40 years ago these kinds of complex organizations were rare (think of place like NASA). Today the level of complexity is so high that these issues are relevant to almost every organization.

I was talking today to a classmate who works in a bank. “We never have time to really discuss issues of teamwork or motivation”, she told me, “There is always so much to do that we just deal with what is happening right now”. It is the same thing. We focus on the discrete things (what has to be done now) and not on the process (the long time motivation and engagement of our team). When something goes wrong we talk about the specific decision and how we can prevent the likes of it in the future. We usually don’t attack the underlying assumptions and processes that led to it. We don’t spend enough time on maintenance. We can fix the real accidents easily; it is the normal accidents we should look for. The systematic issues. And that requires a change in thinking and a change of priorities.



2 Responses to “Normal accidents, motivation, causes and effects”

  1. Rishi Says:

    agreed. I think that a successful manager or leader needs to allow, nay compel his people to take time to go to the balcony from time to time.

  2. sherfelad Says:

    Thanks Rishi. I just want to make sure that time to time is not once a year, but closer to once a week (or even more)…

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