Adapt - why success often starts with failure

Posted by Anonymous
24 August 2012 - 1:52pm

Adapt - Why Success Often Starts With Failure by Tim Harford'Adapt - why success often starts with failure' is a great new book by Tim Harford, author of 'The Undercover Economist' and columnist for the Financial Times, which has received rave reviews since it was published last year. The central idea of the book is that just as the evolutionary process has no foresight and is the result of pure trial and error over a very long period of time, in a highly unpredictable, complex, and changeable world, the process of adaptation is essential. Harford emphasises the importance of adaptive, trial-and-error processes in innovation, and in tackling complex adaptive challenges such as climate change and poverty. Using real case studies from psychology, economics, politics and biology, Harford argues that:

  • We can no longer rely on experts to provide the answers or show us the way forward. 
  • It is impossible to know in advance what the correct strategy will be.
  • Complex problems need to be tackled from the bottom up and require a willingness to experiment and improvise (rather than plan). 
  • The best possible way to search for solutions is trial and error, and taking "a mix of small steps and occasional wild gambles". 
  • Adaptive organisations need to decentralise and become comfortable with the chaos of different local approaches and the awkwardness of dissent from junior staff.

A book worth reading, which leaves us with some questions to ponder as we work to help our organisations become more adaptive: 

  • Do you challenge the status quo?
  • Do you seek out new ideas and try new things? are you making space for experimentation? 
  • What is your view of failure? 
  • When trying something new, do you do it on a scale where failure is survivable?
  • Do you have systems for adapting those initiatives that are clearly failing? 
  • Do you seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes?
  • Who do you listen to and trust in your organisation? 
  • Do you demand dissent or just tolerate it?

Read more about Tim Harford and Adapt on his website at