Global organizational meltdowns aren’t your typical dinner conversation, but that’s because András Tilcsik and Chris Clearfield aren’t normally sitting at your table. When the social scientist and derivatives trader sat down at the same table at a friend’s wedding in 2011, they got to talking about their shared interest in “epic failures,” like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the Fukushima nuclear disaster and Hurricane Sandy. In 2018, Penguin Random House will publish Meltdown, the book that resulted from that casual conversation.
Tilcsik came of age in Hungary in the 1980s, a time of rapid political and social change. “It’s really hard not to want to be a social scientist if you see something like that first-hand,” he observes. A fascination with complex systems led him to a PhD in organizational behaviour at Harvard University, and he joined the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management as an assistant professor in 2012.
“We have this interesting paradox of progress, where we are building systems in medicine, transportation and business that are much more sophisticated than what we had in the past,” Tilcsik says. “But our models for risk management are not keeping up with the increased complexities of these systems.” (His research interests extend beyond catastrophe: Tilcsik’s publications include timely work on race and sexual orientation in the labour market.)
In January 2015, Tilcsik launched an MBA course called Catastrophic Failure in Organizations, examining how companies can recover from foundation-shaking disasters; it was the most oversubscribed offering in the entire program. Tilcsik describes the course as a “collective journey” in which students from a variety of backgrounds—such as health care, politics, mining and aviation—come together to think critically about organizational pitfalls.
Tilcsik’s research shows the failures happening in the cockpit of an airplane or the power grid have a lot in common with organizational problems seen in business. “The more you realize some of the challenges are very similar, [the more you realize] some of the solutions might also be very similar,” he says. The course and his research inform Meltdown, which Tilcsik and Clearfield wrote together. “These kinds of failures rarely happen, but when they do, people die, people lose their jobs, organizations are broken, the water is poisoned,” says Tilcsik. “I think we can do a lot better, and we can learn a lot from each other if we talk and if we try to [understand].”