Flirting with Disaster – a Book Review

My risk management master’s course had a heavy reading list as you’d expect but a lot of these set texts – and the course material itself – was pretty thick and not much fun.  However, I found a few books that I used alongside the course work which helped summarize a lot of the technical, academic stuff and, frankly, made it less dull.  I wanted to share a few of these with you beginning with a book about when and how things go wrong.

Flirting with Disaster

The central premise of Flirting with Disaster is that most accidents are not accidental and that the organization and other observers were aware of the problems which led to the accident well in advance.  However, for a number of complicated reasons in the lead-up to and in the early stages of the accident, preventative steps were not taken.
The book, published in 2008, lays out a detailed explanation for this illogical behavior – if we know things are going to end badly, why don’t we do something? – through a mix of clear explanations of the theories alongside detailed case studies.

Flirting with Disaster – Why Accidents are Rarely Accidental by Marc Gerstein with Michael Ellsberg (on Amazon here*)

Case studies done right

Gerstein, who among other things was a Visiting Scholar at MIT’s Sloan School of Business, uses detailed, rigorous, fact-filled reviews of events ranging from the two NASA Shuttle disasters to the Chornobyl meltdown as well as more unexpected examples such as how the original settlers of Easter Island disappeared.  These are tight, well research, and neatly summarized accounts of events that are still rich in detail.
Moreover, in addition to their rigor and detail, like any good historical documentary, these case-studies are told in a way that you are still on the edge of your seat waiting to find out how things will end: despite the fact that you already know the outcome.
But in addition to the enjoyment of reading such well-written accounts, the case studies provide concrete examples of the theories in practice in addition to countless lessons and takeaways.
These alone make the book worth recommending but there are some specific reasons I think that this is a great read for risk managers in particular.

Why should a risk management read this?

I think that there are three main reasons a risk manager would find Flirting with Disaster useful.  (At least, this is why I have found it useful.)

Clear explanations

The book explains a lot of otherwise dry and abstract academic theory in a way that is easy to understand.
I really believe that a basic understanding of the theories behind people’s attitudes towards risk are vital to be an effective risk manager.  But I also realize that not everyone wants to read Paul Slovic’s original papers on risk perception or something from 1932 about disaster and psychology.   (Weird, I know. )
Flirting with Disaster does a good job of boiling down these key concepts in an easy to understand way.  Moreover, these theories are explained with…

Detailed lessons

I have explained how useful the book is for understanding academic theories but there are a lot of practical lessons here too.  The real value of these case studies as opportunities to learn and avoid the same mistakes is immense.  As Gerstein sums it up towards the end of the book [my emphasis].

One of the guilty secrets of my forty years of organizations consulting is that the most useful advice has been drawn from the classic ideas, not from freshly minted theories.  That doesn’t mean that there is no value in new ideas: it’s simply that the accumulated value of the tried and true is far, far greater than that contained in many trendy articles best-sellers, and consulting sales pitches.

Gerstein, Flirting with Disaster p 283

Sadly, chapter six, titled ‘The Vioxx Disaster and BP: the Seduction of Profits‘, unknowingly provides an example of what happens when we fail to learn from the past.  Note that this book was published in 2008, two years before the Macondo well blowout and the loss of the Deepwater Horizon with her 11 crew.
Yet here, Gerstein is exploring another BP incident, the Texas City refinery fire of 2005 where 15 died and over 150 were injured.  So there were clear lessons from Texas City for BP to learn from their investigations, the public investigation and books like this.  Yet five years later, with many of those lessons apparently unlearned, we had the loss of 11 other lives and biggest oil spill in US history.
So while there is no guarantee that the outcome will be the same, previous, similar events are a very good indicator of the end result allowing you to put contingencies into action.  Moreover, these case studies often tell you the kind of mitigation which didn’t work which in itself is very valuable.
The lessons learned from these case studies is therfore immensely valuable for us as risk managers as a way to learn how to successfully address similar situations that we may face in the future.  (Of course, this assumes that you put these lessons into action.)

Practical guidance

Finally, in addition to the scenario-specific takeaways from the case studies, the book provides many more general lessons that can be applied in a range of circumstances.  For example, towards the end in a chapter titled ‘What have we Learned?’, Gerstein provides four ‘rules to live by‘:

  1. Understand the risks you face.
  2. Avoid being in denial.
  3. Pay attention to weak signals and early warnings.
  4. Don’t subordinate the chance to avoid catastrophe to other considerations.

These are just four of the many valuable lessons scattered throughout the book.  (The next chapter is simply called ‘Advice for Leaders‘).  All are worth highlighting and keeping in mind as a risk manager.


This was one of the first non-textbooks I read when I started studying risk management formally and I have returned to it many times over the past 10+ years for the reasons I explained above.  Reading it a decade later, and sometimes dozens or even hundreds of years after the examples, what stands out is that the lessons learned and guidance Gerstein and Ellsberg provide hold up.
I think that this is because this is really an academic text disguised as a non-technical book.  The underlying research and analysis are thorough yet easy to follow and digest.  Coupled with Gerstein’s aversion to fads and a trust of the ‘classics’, the book holds up well.
Sadly, events since publication show that despite the availability of lessons to learn from, we are often immune to doing the right thing.
That more than anything is a good reason to find a copy and read this to avoid flirting with your own disasters.

Want your own copy?  Use the image or link below to find this on Amazon*

Flirting with Disaster on Amazon*


Thanks for reading this and I hope you found it useful but let me know.  Leave a comment below to tell me what you think.  And if you liked it, consider sharing this with someone else.

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