The Fatal Flaw Myth

James Suroweicki has an excellent piece in The New Yorker about the "fatal flaw myth." As part of the article, he comments on the fundamental attribution error, a bias that is particularly prevalent in the workplace.

People are generally bad at accepting the importance of context and chance. We fall prey to what the social psychologist Lee Ross called "the fundamental attribution error"-the tendency to ascribe success or failure to innate characteristics, even when context is overwhelmingly important.

Then he takes a shot at management fads, which is like shooting fish in a barrel, but it's still fun.

Because we underestimate how much variation can be caused simply by luck, we see patterns where none exist. It's no wonder that management theory is dominated by fads: every few years, new companies succeed, and they are scrutinized for the underlying truths that they might reveal.

I wonder if Suroweicki would consider "wisdom of crowds" an up and coming fad…

  • That’s another problem with management improvement efforts. (See Bob Sutton’s manifesto “Management Advice: Which 90% is Crap?” at Both good AND bad ideas become fads when consultants use the “one size fits all” philosophy. That’s what happened to Mike Hammer’s Reengineering idea.

  • J

    I thought the best (and probably truest) quote was:

    “The problem with such prognostications is that they infer basic truths about a company’s prospects from its short-term performance.”

    While I agree with the criticisms of Airbus’ structure and political interference, the author doesn’t mention that outside of the US and arguably the Netherlands, airlines that operate internationally are basically public utilities with considerable political protection from competition. Rent seeking might well make the 380 just as “efficient” as the 787 ( ).

  • T.

    Even though there’s always a risk of error because it’s Wikipedia, here’s a list of cognitive biases including fundamental attriubution error:

  • Rob,

    False attribution are the talismen that business people use to ward off the unpredictable nature of the universe. By pretending there is an unfailing cause and effect relationship between management actions and results, executives can maintain the illusion of control over their circumstances.

    But it IS an illusion.


  • tried to open your blog got error !