No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Organizing to Reduce...Complexity

Organizing to Reduce the Vulnerabilities of Complexity – a research paper by Charles Perrow

Strategies to Reduce Vulnerabilities in Complex Systems

Complex and tightly coupled systems are vulnerable, and structural changes are needed to reduce these vulnerabilities. Sociologist Charles Perrow suggests to:

  • Decompose such systems into monitored units;
  • Design inelegant but robust systems;
  • Incorporate redundancies and safety measures from the start;
  • Foster skepticism within organizations;
  • Involve external stakeholders in accident investigations and organizational changes to maintain system integrity.

Proactive Measures for Enhancing System Reliability and Security

Risks are posed by various actors in the environment of critical infrastructure, like criminal "businessmen", foreign government agents, "phishing" hackers, and terrorists. To prevent the complexity and coupling of systems defeating safety systems, Perrow suggests strategies such as limiting the size of stand-alone system parts, using 'buses' - in the electrical sense - to link units and buffer the disturbances in each, and promoting worst-case scenario analysis and open communication channels for error reporting. These kind of proactive measures enhance the reliability and security of complex systems.

The Dangers of Organizational Cover-Ups

In specific instances, major organizations have attempted to cover up information, such as the military's handling of depleted uranium shells or NASA's response to the Challenger disaster. A lack of transparency and input from external stakeholders can lead to unrealistic emergency plans and inadequate safety measures, Perrow writes.

Involving External Stakeholders in Emergency Planning

The organizational system is advised to involve various external organizations and stakeholders in emergency planning to prevent cover-ups and improve safety and security. A diverse and rich network of organizations with different interests is needed to ensure a more realistic approach to emergency planning. This network includes groups like pilots' unions, fire departments, hackers, and others, each contributing their perspective to enhance safety measures. Perrow: "Everyone should be there when the wreckage is assembled; everyone should weigh in on the rule changes."

External Organizations as a Source of Remedy

Perrow writes that the major source of remedy for organizations facing problems or crises often comes from other organizations representing different stakeholders. This network of organizations, the sector including suppliers, customers, regulatory agencies, employee representatives, consumer groups, public interest groups, and academies, - a rich and diverse network of organizations and stakeholders - makes it difficult for large organizations to cover up information or engage in deceptive practices. When multiple organizations are involved, it becomes challenging to hide critical information.

Exposing Organizational Cover-Ups

Cover-ups such as the US military's handling of depleted uranium shells, NASA's response to the Challenger disaster, and the Israeli government's involvement in an incident with toxic substances, show how organizations may withhold information to protect their interests. Whistleblowers and media expose these cover-ups, in some cases forcing organizations to address issues they had concealed. Media interest can also play a crucial role in bringing hidden information to light. A rich and contentious environment of organizations and stakeholders fosters transparency, encourages attention to security and safety, and reduces the likelihood of cover-ups.

A Networked Approach for Security Organizations

Perrow suggests that organizations should adopt a networked approach rather than a tightly controlled, centralized structure. Security organizations like the CIA, FBI, and NSC could benefit from a more open and networked approach to enhance safety and security, Perrow writes. Applying a networked approach to security organizations may face challenges, particularly with centralized command structures. Protection of independent interests is needed within these organizations. In conclusion, cultivating a network of interested organizations and stakeholders can lead to more reliable organizations with improved safety and security.


Perrow, C. (1999), Organizing to Reduce the Vulnerabilities of Complexity, in: Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management, Vol. 7, No. 3, September 1999.