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Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics Hardcover – February 28, 2006

3.2 out of 5 stars 25 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Businesses collapse just as surely as people do, yet economics textbooks and financial reporters stubbornly concentrate on success rather than failure. Ormerod (Butterfly Economics) argues this outlook is fundamentally flawed; failure, he says, is "the distinguishing feature of corporate life," and he uses it to link economic models with models of biological evolution, which he presents as a string of extinctions rather than survival of the fittest. Despite this parallel, his focus is on economic theory and what he sees as its inadequate accounting of uncertainty (defined as the impossibility of knowing how policies or business strategies will work) and how it breeds failure. He writes about complex concepts such as power-law behavior, game theory and bounded rationality, but makes them accessible to the lay reader with lengthy but readable explanations that forsake jargon for contemporary cultural references. (Though people who are already familiar with the debates he brings up will doubtless get more out of the book) Yet for all his persuasive examples, the book never crystallizes into a whole, so while readers may find many parts provocative, they are likely to finish it still lacking a complete understanding of failure as Ormerod sees it.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Economist Ormerod addresses "what is probably the most fundamental feature of both biological and human social and economic systems: failure. Species fail and become extinct, brands fail, companies fail, public policies fail." It is fortunate that everything does not fail at once. With an emphasis on reality and not theory, he offers three themes: a documentation of failure, the subtle patterns he finds in the apparent disorder of failure, and the causes of failure. Ormerod concludes that innovation is the guiding principle that companies use to try to overcome the uncertainty surrounding their decisions. Management responds with constant action, testing new ideas, new brands, and new products because they cannot know with absolute certainty why an individual brand fails, and almost all brands eventually fail. The focus on innovation, developing new strategies for individual survival, is also important for consumers and citizens. This is challenging reading and not recommended for the casual reader. Mary Whaley
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (February 28, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375424059
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375424052
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (25 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #549,896 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Michael K. Bergman on June 26, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Paul Ormerod's "Why Most Things Fail: Evolution, Extinction and Economics," begins with the observation that failure is everywhere but is not the subject of standard analysis by the economics profession. Since the advent of the modern corporation, 22% of the top 100 companies at any given time drop from the elite rankings in the next decade, 10% of all companies fail each year (granted, mostly the newbies), and 50% of globally successful companies go extinct within the lifetime of a modern human. Why?

Ormerod brings a journalist's and economic historian's perspective to the question. He snorts at general equilibrium theory as being fundamentally at odds with how the real economy works. Standard supply curves? NO. Demand curves? NO. Setting price at marginal costs? NO. Perfect competition? NO. Perfect information? NO. Eventually rising marginal costs with greater production? RARELY.

I'm not surprised that professional economists would find this book lacking. Yet for most of us that have only taken Economics 101 or mostly get our economics from pop economists on news and business programs, Ormerod raises important questions and brings forth important ideas. There is indeed much that the conventional economics community has gotten wrong or has been too simplistic about. This book is a very good re-entry into economics if you have been away for a while.

Ormerod's major thesis -- and what caught my eye in getting the book in the first place -- is that there are many parallels between biological evolution and the behavior and extinction of firms. For this, Ormerod especially points to both systems as being characterized by much uncertainty and complexity. No argument there.
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Format: Hardcover
Paul Oremerod bills the book as a theory for why everything fails. This high concept book (aimed at the audience of similar high concept books like Blink and Freakonomics) unfortunately fails to deliver on it's promise of a grand unifying theme. What is presented is an attack on classical economics. Well deserved, and well delivered from an insider in the profession, but not a coherent explanation of why things don't work.

Whining aside, the book won't kill you, it's an easy read, and you'll learn something (quite a bit!) from it. For that, it does deserve a spot on my bookshelf.
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Format: Hardcover
I'd like to recommend this book, but I can only recommend the first half of it. I'm a fan of solid economics writing and clear systemic argument. This book begins with both and builds a case for understanding something both obvious and stunning-- businesses fail at such a high rate that they look a great deal like biological systems suffering waves of extinction events. I greatly enjoyed Ormerod's "Butterfly Economics" but after a solid beginning this book lost focus.

One very good item here is the Iron Law of Failure. He writes, "Failure is pervasive. Failure is everywhere, across time, across place and across different aspects of life; 99.99% of all biological species that have ever existed are now extinct. More than 10% of all the companies in America disappear each year." Failure happens when companies don't evolve and change to meet new challenges, competitors or brands. What happens after failures is also a key component of the book and one I wish he would have dealt with more deeply. The ideas of creative destruction and adaptive evolution are found in the latter half of the book but they seem less developed. And while the existance of an Iron Law (I liked the term) is no doubt true, is it necessary for the growth of prosperity? Do we all do better, live longer, etc., because of competition and destruction?

He's a great writer and wonderful thinker but this is only a fair book.
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Format: Hardcover
I have two perspectives for the review of Mr. Ormerod's fine book. First - if you are new to this subject, the book is interesting throughout as it helps explain, or at least builds a framework to hang our hats own about why some things seem to succeed and others fail. There are multitudes of examples from the pet rock (succeed), to the Edsel (a considered failure).

Second - if you are familiar with the subject of extinction theory and dynamic systems, the book starts out slow, but really hits its stride in Chapter 8 "Doves & Hawks" (and forward) as we start to get into examples of dynamic theory and extinction theory/data. In Chapter 10 "The Powers That Be" we learn that systems in which the connections are not random but follow a power law have completely different properties than ones that do, since it is the structure of the connections between the component parts (i.e. agents) which gives systems their distinctive and characteristic features.

No, don't be afraid, as this is not a technical book as I make it out to be as all the examples are easy to read and comprehend. If you are interested in this subject, other fine books to review are Ubiquity by Mark Buchanan, The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, or Deep Simplicity by John Gribbin.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book hoping for insight into "why most things fail." What I got was a rambling argument grounded primarily on the similarity of the frequency distributions of business failure and biological failures (extinctions). Frankly, the relationship hardly strikes me as logically necessary, and the relation could well be spurious (or coincidental). But I'm no PhD and didn't give it a lot of thought, so I could well be wrong.

What I am certain of is that the book offered little else, no corrolaries, certainly no explanation of the reasons "why most things fail," and no other practical insights or knowledge.

Bottom line, wait for the book's appearance in the discount bin before buying.
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