You may wonder about the need for adapting. Tim Harford, the author makes a very strong case for learning to adapt. "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. The aim of this book is to provide an answer to that challenge."
There is no doubt that the world and our individual lives are becoming more complex and challenging. The conventional approach to solving problems does not seem to work.
Mr. Harford builds a case for an unconventional approach - an experimental approach involving trial and error.
The book puts forth that there are three essential steps for successful adapting: The first is to try new things with the knowledge that some will fail; to make failure survivable since some of the attempts will surely fail and to make sure you know when you have failed.
The essential steps seem fairly straightforward. But Mr. Harford takes the reader on a journey through history, recalling many failures - Robert McNamara's handling of the war in Vietnam; Donald Rumsfeld's stubbornness dealing with the war in Iraq; The Piper Alpha rig explosion in the North Sea; and the Lehman Brothers financial meltdown.
He also recalls many things that worked and contrasts the different approaches used by the successful - trial and error and adapting.
There is a wonderful collection of historical events, psychological experiments and insights that we can put to use in our daily lives.
Some of the insights deal with large organizations and governments. Here the average reader may become a bit discouraged that those in charge, those who should know, get so attached to their own decisions that they can't/won't let go of them. Rumsfeld and McNamara come to mind.
Chapter six is particularly interesting. It deals with the recent financial meltdown and in particular the Lehman Brothers failure. There is a great insight in the need for decoupling. The concept is quite simple, separate (decouple)the transactions of financial institutions so that the failure of any one will not bring down others. Unfortunately so many banks and investments banks were so tightly connected that any adverse occurrence in one had an impact on the entire system. The decoupling concept applies not only to financial institutions but to safety concerns - think the Horizon disaster - Three Mile Island, etc.
Chapter seven and eight brings all the concepts together. Chapter seven takes all the concepts concerning organizations and chapter eight deals with the concepts as it applies to individuals.
The lessons concerning the adaptive organization might seem a little beyond the average reader. But there is no doubt that we all will benefit greatly from the lessons contained in Adapting and You (Chapter 8).
We should understand that the key to success in an ever changing world is adapting. And the key to adapting is: Try new things, try them in a context where failure is survivable and learn how to react to the failures we do encounter.
A very enjoyable read with lots of great lessons. For the individual, the last chapter is the most valuable.
on May 22, 2011
As always, Tim Harford finds the most interesting economic research and explains it well. As I read Adapt, I was frequently inspired to go online and look up the economics he reports on. The section on evolved virtual creatures prompted me to visit YouTube and watch for myself how animal-like forms evolved through computer simulations. After reading about the unintended consequences of some foreign aid programs, I had to see what a Play Pump looks like and watch the interviews with teachers who preferred the old borehole pumps. Adapt is an excellent collection of quotes, stories, and research findings on innovation and economic evolution.
However, the book falls short in a few ways. First, although Harford's writing is generally clear, he employs some annoying rhetorical devices that should have been edited out. One is that he repeatedly withholds the name of the person whose work he's discussing until he has built up all the details of the story. Only once he's laid out the research results does he reveal that the anonymous manager is a famous figure or someone we met in the last chapter. It's as if Harford isn't confident that the research will hold anyone's attention, so he has to play games with the reader. Equally irksome is his tendency to repeat points again and again, reminding readers of things he mentioned two pages back that no one could have forgotten.
The chapter on the financial crisis was also a disappointment. It devolved into boring jargon and obscure terms for different loans and contracts. Maybe it's not possible to make subprime mortgages entertaining, and I don't know if any other writer could have done a better job. But the book would have been more enjoyable without that tedious interlude.
But the main drawback is that Harford's thesis that economic progress parallels evolution in the natural world is not fully developed or defended. Certainly, economic progress is like evolution in that bad products disappear and good technology, like good genes, is passed along. Harford's assertion that isolation is a necessary precondition of creativity seems less persuasive. He gives examples from evolutionary biology in which populations adapted differently because they were separated by physical barriers. Harford then offers the example of researchers who moved out to Utah or Arizona to get some space as proof that human innovators must be similarly isolated. But is that really true in the world of human ideas? I'm not convinced. Virtually all innovators of the last century had some kind of intellectual peer group, either through a university or social circle. And modern communications enable researchers in Utah to keep abreast of the latest ideas and theories. They're not separated intellectually from their peers the way guppies in different ponds are separated physically. Furthermore, Harford does not fully explain what process in the economy corresponds to sexual reproduction in the natural world. How do good ideas spread if they're not identified by a manager from the top? Harford alludes to imitation by other economic actors, but doesn't show how or why this occurs.
Adapt is worthwhile reading as a starting-point for investigating economic research on innovation, but its model of economic development as a corollary to biological evolution is not completely satisfactory.
Adapt is a well written book with compelling examples that covers, in my opinion, the single most important topic in how to think about thinking:
To a first approximation, rational deduction fails 100% of the time, when applied to the messy real world. The ONLY path to success is to try, fail, and adapt.
The examples are engaging, the writing is pleasant, and there are soundbites throughout that are wonderful. My favorite in the second half of the book was a joke making fun of self-help and business books.
The flow of the book goes roughly:
1. What's the likelihood of getting something wrong? (~100%)
2. What can we do? (Feedback + Adaptation)
3. What about situations where we have to get it right (Nuclear power plants?)
4. How do organizations adapt (Low central control).
5. How do individuals adapt (It's hard).
The book was generally very strong. The variety of examples throughout was particularly impressive. Anyone who doesn't already understand the idea that we all are wrong up front most of the time should have this book stapled to their hands. Considering myself well read in this space, I saw a new example I was unfamiliar with every third page.
Among my favorite of the little examples that I was unfamiliar with:
Paul Ormerod ran math models of corporate extinctions that lined up pretty well with math models of species extinctions. However, the math models only worked (had decent predictivity) if the assumption was that none of them were any good at all at predicting the future:
"It was possible to build a model that mimicked the real extinction signature of firms, and it was possible to build a model that represented firms as moderately successful planners; but it was not possible to build a model that did both."
2-3 years ago, I concluded that there was a wide open market for a book on the twin topics of ubiquitous error and feedback. I started a blog partly because the topic needed addressed, and it hadn't been addressed in the modern literature. Indeed, it was contradicted by most of the modern discussions. on any topic.
This book is easily the most important of the modern big idea-books. Malcolm Gladwell's minor insights are tiny details in comparison.
I was less than impressed by his treatment of point 3 above...but I'm less than impressed by my treatment of the topic as well...I don't think there is a good answer, and while Harford seems to admit as much at the end of the chapter (6), the rest of the chapter seems to be attempting to suggest a solution.
If I had written the book...I'd have pulled in 2 additional topics:
What does this mean for government?
My favorite prior thinkers in this direction are: John Boyd, W. Edwards Deming, and Kent Beck, and Frederich Hayek. Only Hayek is referenced, and lightly.
Minor quibbles aside...the book is required reading.
on May 30, 2011
Tim Harford's new book examines how variation, selection, and decoupling combine to allow organizations to adapt to meet complex challenges. Variation is all about encouraging innovative approaches, some of which defy conventional wisdom. Selection is the dark art of figuring out what works and doesn't. Decoupling applies at two levels. The first is making experiments small enough that if they fail, they can be closed at minimal cost. At a lower level, decoupling is about designing systems whose parts are independent enough so that if one fails, the failure does not cascade to catastrophic levels. Harford uses a wide range of scenarios to describe each tenet and illustrate how they have worked in the past and how they can come together in the future to the benefit of all.
Harford's writing style is something every author in a technical field should aspire to. He uses everyday language and a clever sense of humor to explain complex concepts in the simplest terms possible, avoiding the jargon that makes many books impenetrable to the layperson. Perhaps more importantly, the book is carefully researched and sourced. Many of the examples will not be new information to the well-informed reader, but few of us have sources to back up the points at our fingertips. For someone like me who likes to debate some of these topics, the book is a gold mine of references.
To me the most important message is implied throughout the book but spelled out in the last two chapters. What does it mean to be adaptive, either as a person or as an organization? At its core, it is not a book about adaptation but about leadership. He takes dead aim at by-the-book top-down management approaches, providing a compelling argument that these approaches are part of the problem and must be eradicated to allow us to solve our toughest problems. He shows how many of the best ideas are developed by experts at lower levels of the organization. It is a lesson that every leader should take to heart.
My biggest issue with the book is the title. It goes beyond "Why?" to what I consider to be the far more important question, "How?". To me, a more appropriate title is "Adaptation: How Allowing Failure Leads to Success." Because of this, I find the book to be not just entertaining but important.
Tim Harford's "Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure" is a book about economic case study, written in an engaging, fast-moving way but without losing any of its erudition. Harford discusses many different types of business models, including the United States Army (the chapter about how the Army needed to adapt, pronto, in the Middle East is must-read stuff), various scientific endeavors (including one gentleman who studied mouse genetics, who succeeded by refusing to adapt, realizing that the world would adapt to him, not the reverse), and all sorts of economic pursuits. And in all of them, one thing is continuous: we fail. Again, and again, and again. And a smart manager, or businessman, or Army Captain on up, realizes this and either learns from his mistakes in order to succeed, or he'll fail over, and over, and over again.
The trick of life, Harford says, is to learn from your mistakes. This is such a truism that you'd not think anyone could hang a book around it except a feel-good psychologist -- but Harford is an economist (one of his other books is called "The Undercover Economist") and he looks at things more scientifically and rationally than I'd expected when I'd ordered this book.
I appreciated the insights being given here in "Adapt" precisely because Harford used case studies that were provable and relevant. It added a great deal to the readability of this book by covering topical subjects (including the TransOcean fiasco which poured billions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico) in an entertaining, fast-moving, yet brilliant way . . . all I can say is bravo to Harford, and bravissimo to his editor.
A shade under five stars (rounded up for Amazon's purposes), highly recommended for anyone who wants to understand the economy a little better -- or better yet, wants to figure out how to learn from his own mistakes in order to succeed the next time out.
on October 2, 2011
The book argues that in all human endeavors that exceed a certain complexity (military campaigns, government policies, financial markets etc...) it is an illusion to expect to be able to anticipate and plan for all consequences of one's decisions. In these circumstances it is far better to set up systems that can perform a very large number of frequent and small experiments on the outcome of which the entire system can be optimized. Not exactly a novel idea, although an important one. That said, Harford writes very clearly and is able to pull together a lot of disparate strands to show how pervasive the basic idea is. Also useful is the fact that many examples are very very current and the academic references are very up to date.
on December 6, 2011
In Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Harford, an economics columnist for the Financial Times, describes the economy as "an evolutionary environment in which a huge variety of ingenious profit-seeking strategies emerge through a decentralized process of trial and error." His key conclusion is that evolution is much smarter than we are; therefore, to be successful we must use evolutionary methods.
An evolutionary perspective means, as the book's subtitle states, that success invariably begins with failure. Harford devotes his book to exploring the implications of this idea for organizations and individuals, illustrating his conclusions à la Malcolm Gladwell, with a wide-ranging collection of anecdotes that are often drawn from studies of dysfunctional economies and organizations.
The hero of the book, to whom the author continually returns, is Peter Palchinsky, a brilliant, stubborn, opinionated Russian engineer who was an economic advisor to the tsar and then to the Soviet government, before being executed by the Communists in 1929. His crime was that he saw too clearly that centralized control over economic development could not work, because it did not permit variation and selection -- the critical processes of evolutionary adaptation.
Harford identifies three Palchinsky-esque principles for success: "first, seek out new ideas and try new things; second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable; third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes." This sounds simple, but applying these principles is more difficult than it seems, as the author shows by tackling some of today's major political, economic, and social challenges.
For instance, Harford uses the invasion of Iraq to demonstrate how a refusal to learn from mistakes and adapt led to a failure in the city of Tal Afar -- a near-rout that was rescued from disaster only through an improvised experiment. The conductor of this experiment, which harnessed the efforts of the locals to expel the terrorists, was Colonel H.R. McMaster, another of Harford's heroes and a veteran of the Vietnam War.
McMaster wrote a definitive examination of the failures of leadership in Vietnam, which showed how Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara had enforced a rigid hierarchy, insisted on unanimity, and put too much faith in the centralization of data and the use of quantitative methods for analysis. (Their story sounds eerily like the actions of the senior executives at GM that Bob Lutz describes.) It's instructive, too, that in the process of winning over the local insurgents in Tal Afar, McMaster makes enemies of his superiors and is repeatedly passed over for promotion to brigadier general, an omission that was recently remedied by McMaster's like-minded boss, General David Petraeus.
A short review cannot do justice to all the perspectives that Harford uses to illustrate the application of Palchinsky's principles. He discusses how new ideas can be created, how to conduct experiments to tease out the webs of cause and effect, and the multiple ways in which leaders can profit by admitting failure and learning from experience. My only criticism is that at times Harford appears to regard variation as the opposite of standardization, with the implication that "uniformly high standards are not only impossible but undesirable." Certainly this is true of mindless standardization for the sake of uniformity, but it is not true of the rigid but mindful standardization of approaches like the Toyota production system, where standards form the foundation of the controlled experiments that take place on the factory floor every hour of every day. Without such standardization, there can be no helpful variation. One feels sure that Peter Palchinsky would agree.
Adapt was a well written book. The author included several historical events to support his argument that adaptation is an important key to any successful business, nation, or military battle plan.
I enjoyed reading the book and often felt a connection to the subject matter. How many times have you felt that your opinion was ignored by colleagues and superiors only to realize later you were right.
The book describes the problem with inflexible planning/planners. People who absolutely refuse to listen to opposing arguments. He exposes the danger of stubborn mangers and the lack of self reflection many people in power posses and goes on to explain the importance of criticism citing several historical examples.
This book should appeal to both the conservative and the liberal but most of all the free thinker.
The book historically documents a cross-section of government, business, and military leaders whose stubborn unyielding manners resulted in complete or near catastrophic failure.
I highly recommend this book.
on April 14, 2011
I was hooked on this book after reading the first chapter of the book that gave a humorous quote from President Obama. President Obama made a statement about being evaluated on success in his job after his first 100 days in the office. The fact is that when we all assume new job, whether we work for someone else or we are on our own, it is almost an expectation we setup the evaluation criteria on how successful we are in what we do. But this book goes to show that while some people can be very successful in what they do, they can still end up failing in a sense that they loose job, loose acceptance of the leaders they perform their work for or simply get killed (such was case with scientist in Russia who openly cirticized government).
Book looks into various industries such as: government, military and private sector. Although so called experts have a greater chance in making a correct guess on outcomes of certain actions, their predictions are hardly full proof. Experts are better in making predictions only when compared with guesses of non-experts making guesses on the same topic. Non-compliance in sense of concealing the full truth from the boss or speaking out one's mind when leadership expects an absolute loyalty and stay away from any form of public and private dissent. The tuth is that leaders are not always ready to be forewarned about impending doom. They usually take ation about it once there was complete failure in order to prove their decisive state of mind.
But just as leaders are not full proof, neither are ideas. Some ideas are so new and far out that they are impossible to implement in reality/real world. Other ideas although packaged as "new ideas" never are entirely new. They are just repackaged goods that have to be applied to new situations.
But overll this is a wonderful book about the art of adapting. We have to adapt as individuals to our careers, people we work for and report to, our new reponsibilities. Societies have to adapt to the changes and times in history such as globalization we are encoutering now. Leaders have to adapt and accept that sometimes the only way to be successful leading is by experimenting and trying new things that have not bee tried before. Overall, this book is successful look at society as we know it and its active participants - people.
on October 19, 2011
This is one of the best nonfiction books I've read in a long time. In part, that's due to the gripping, and numerous accounts the author gives of catastrophic failures such as Three Mile Island, Piper Alpha and some of the horrific early failures in the occupation of Iraq.
I can't see rating this a four star book, because its better than that. But I had two main problems with it upon finishing it.
First, you tend to believe the book will delve in depth into how the research can be applied to one's personal life. But the author spends the overwhelming bulk of the text dealing with case studies of corporations, military structure, global financial systems etc. and the final two chapters just very briefly touch on how to adapt all that's been learned to personal growth. That's dissapointing, and maybe its because he simply didn't know how to adapt all this insight to personal growth? Maybe its coming in his next book? I don't know.
The second sort of pet peeve I have with the book is Mr. Harford's solution to curtailing greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging nations to impose a carbon tax on the use of fossil fuels. The premise is that if this tax affects socity across the board, it increases gasoline by five cents a gallon, a cheesburger costs an additional 12 cents etc. etc., that overall, in a broad scale, this will discourage consumers from buying products that produce a large amount of CO2 and encourage them to buy products that produce lesser amounts of CO2 (or other greenhouse gasses like methane produced by cows etc.).
This just doesn't work in reality however. Raising the cost of fossil fuels or the cost of carbon polluting practices is simply an artificial way of bumping up global inflation a very small amount. And what happens when inflation rises? Does consumption fall? It may fall in the short term. (We've seen gasoline consumption certainly fall in the short term in the US when prices spike, but then the consumption level goes back to normal when the price drops).
Inflation never curtails consumption in the long term, because eventually you have wages increasing, social security cost of living increases etc. to adjust to it.
Artificial inflation by carbon taxes will not curtail fossil fuel use. We use more fossil fuels now than we did three decades ago when gasoline was less than a dollar a gallon...
So the argument is entirely without basis in my opinion, and I would have expected better from the author considering the insights the rest of the book provides.
(In my opinion, there really is no solution to curtailing the consumption of fossil fuels until they become scarce, the CIA estimates that 2039 will be the date beyond which economically extractable oil no longer exists. And/or eventually, alternative fuels and technologies will be economically competitive against oil/coal/natural gas.)
Aside from those two major flaws in the book IMHO, I think its well worth reading and can provide some revelation on how to solve personal problems if you are willing to take the time to extrapolate on your own how the ideas can be applied to every day living.