Adapt: A book review by Bob Morris

AdaptAdapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure
Tim Harford
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2011)

Natural selection and the creative process

After reading and then re-reading this book, I remain unconvinced that success always begins with failure but agree with Tim Harford that it frequently does, usually through a process of trial and error in combination with experimentation and elimination. There are two keys to the success of that process: learn from each error, and, do not repeat it. Long ago, Charles Darwin observed, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” I was again reminded of that observation as I began to work my way through Tim Hartford’s lively and eloquent narrative.

Here are his own thoughts about the resiliency that is required of those who seek success, however defined: “The ability to adapt requires a sense of security, an inner confidence that the cost of failure [what I prefer to view as non-success or not-as-yet-success] is a cost we will be able to bear. Sometimes that takes real courage; at other times all that is needed is the happy self-delusion of a lost three-year-old. Whatever its source, we need that willingness to risk failure. Without it, we will never succeed.”

The quest for business success involves constant experimentation. Obviously, the prospects for success are improved substantially within a workplace culture that encourages, supports, recognizes, and rewards prudent experimentation. But, as with ideas, the more experiments that are conducted, the more likely that there will be a breakthrough. The first challenge to leaders is to establish such a culture; the next and greater challenge is to sustain it. Harford has written this book to help his reader respond effectively to both challenges. His approach is philosophical, yes, because there are significant issues with important implications and potential consequences to take into full account. However, in my opinion, his approach is also pragmatic and his recommendations are eminently do-able.

These are among the dozens of passages of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Harford’s coverage.

o The Soviet Union’s “pathological inability to adapt” (Pages 21-27)
o Why learning from mistakes is hard (31-35)
o The Tal Afar experiment (50-56)
o Friedrich von Hayek and “knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and space” (74-78)
o Lottery tickets, positive black swans, and the importance of variation (83-86)
o Skunk Works and “freak machines” (86-89)
o “We should not try to design a better world. We should make better feedback loops.” (140-143)
o The Greenhouse Effect, 1859 (154-156)
o The unexpected consequences of the Merton Rule” (169-174)
o Why safety systems bite back (186-190)
o Dominoes and zombie banks (200-202)
o Making experiments survivable (214-216)
o Adapting as we go along (221-224)
o Google’s corporate strategy: have no corporate strategy (231-234)
o When companies become dinosaurs (239-244)
o “Challenge a status quo of your own making”(249-256)

Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter One: “We face a difficult challenge: the more complex and elusive our problems are, the more effective trial and error becomes, relative to the alternatives. Yet it is an approach that runs counter to our instincts, and to the way in which traditional organisations work. The aim of this book is to provide an answer to that challenge.”


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