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Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with…
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Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

by Tim Harford

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Great book. I totally agree on the importance of adaptation and learning through experimentation and trial and error. However, problem is that we often do not know what the feedback says. Like the dance woman. Good that when her show flopped she took the criticism seriously and had friends also analyze whether it was reasonable. But in the earlier episode, it was supposedly crystal clear that she had married her husband because of the earlier abortion and that the marriage was the wrong choice. In general it is often not clear whether one is experiencing a failure or not from the information that one has. When to stop? ( )
  ohernaes | Jan 30, 2013 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
A very interesting book that talks about designing incremental change in a way that things improve continuously in a fault-tolerant way.

From a management perspective there are a number of good ideas about approaching change: for example in marketspace, in processes, and in culture.

I also found very interesting the deep-dive into just a sparse number of topics, from Afghanistan to Magnetogorsk. ( )
  varroa | Apr 8, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I had a difficult time with this audio book version because I was listening it in the car to and from work. Although their were some interesting subject talked about I would not say too many of the concept were new or earth shattering. I did enjoy the book and even if I did not agree with everything I do suggest reading it.. ( )
  Lakenvelder | Jan 30, 2012 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Let me re-title this book for you: Adapt: Tim Harford Makes Out With Markets. Adapt is Harford claiming markets are great because they are so effective, comparing markets and capitalism to evolution because both have use trial and error to select winners. Then Harford cherry-picks lots of examples of people rigidly not adapting in order to show … well, I think he’s trying to show that markets work because of failure. What he actually shows is that he’s good at finding interesting stories of failure. But so does failblog.org, and we don’t acclaim it to be an economic guru.

Harford uses the evolutionary process and it’s results as a basis to promote markets. That’s a very inapt comparison. On the surface, both use trial and error to a degree. But it’s extremely important to remember that proving something about biological evolution does not transfer the proof to markets (and vice versa). I can think of a lot of differences, and I am neither a biologist nor an economist.

Mr. Harford compares biological extinctions with extinctions of companies (we’ve apparently now narrowed down the idea of economic evolution to just corporations). Except that the extinction of a company is never defined. And why does that bother me? Because companies rarely go away, even in bankruptcy. The singular legal entity might. However, most of the time in bankruptcy, other companies buy up pieces of the old company (sometimes everything about the company except it’s specific legal entity and its debts) and continue it on in another form. Additionally, companies get bought up all the time and cease to exist legally but practically speaking they are still surviving. And there are times when companies might be thought to survive, but they really have transformed themselves into another entity. Biology and economics are not the same!

A lot of the examples and stories concern military operations, particularly those in Iraq and Afghanistan. How this applies to markets or evolution, I don’t have the foggiest idea. Again, what’s success on the battlefield has no direct analogy in capitalism. Perhaps his point is that differing views were suppressed, and because of that the military failed, and the same thing could happen in economic situations.

Except that Mr. Harford is comparing apples and orange in his examples. Take his contention that Lyndon Johnson failed because he didn’t get multiple views (according to Adapt at least). The experiments that show multiple views aren’t comparable to the situation asked for by Lyndon Johnson, that his advisers sort out their views before coming to him. There may be serious problems with that method, but the problem wasn’t that there weren’t multiple views. There were. Someone still had to resolve them and come up with a single view. It was just not Johnson that heard the multiple views and resolved them. It was someone lower down on the food chain. The problem is that someone picked the wrong view. There’s no evidence that Lyndon Johnson would have chosen better had he heard the differing things himself.

Mr. Harford puts together some principles that I don’t actually disagree with: that we should be experimenting, that we should make failing survivable, and that we need feedback from the experimentation and failure. However, his evidence for these is fuzzy, at best. And these are presented on the level of management-guru. They don’t provide guidance to anyone to be able to create experimental cultures. He doesn’t explain how to tell if something is survivable ahead of time. And he presents multiple examples of feedback in economics where some feedback wasn’t feeding back and some that was, and doesn’t explain how to tell the difference.

Which doesn’t make it any worse than hundreds of other management-guru books that are out there. That genre of book presents ideas that serve as guiding principles, but rarely are detailed enough to follow effectively. Kind of like telling people to buy low and sell high. Of course that’s what we want to do, but telling when something is underpriced is not easy or nearly everyone would be doing it. Same thing here.

Someone running a business (or an economy) could ask themselves will we survive if we try this? are our other operations sufficiently decoupled from the experiments we’re about to try? But that’s just the sort of thing upper level management tells underlings all the time with no guidance to make it happen. At least that was my experience in the corporate world. At a macroeconomic level, I’m sure the people who supported repealing Glass-Steagall thought we had enough other protections built in to the banking sector that we didn’t need that one. In retrospect, we didn’t.

Adapt is worth reading to get the high level principles as well as a few entertaining cherry-picked stories that illustrate them. Mr. Harford’s attempt to connect natural selection and capitalist markets in the first third is pretty thin.

Review also at my blog: http://www.read-irresponsibly.com/2011/10/adapt-tim-harford/ ( )
  KingRat | Oct 14, 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. ( )
  stefano | Oct 2, 2011 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0374100969, Hardcover)

In this groundbreaking book, Tim Harford, the Undercover Economist, shows us a new and inspiring approach to solving the most pressing problems in our lives. When faced with complex situations, we have all become accustomed to looking to our leaders to set out a plan of action and blaze a path to success. Harford argues that today’s challenges simply cannot be tackled with ready-made solutions and expert opinion; the world has become far too unpredictable and profoundly complex. Instead, we must adapt.

Deftly weaving together psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, physics, and economics, along with the compelling story of hard-won lessons learned in the field, Harford makes a passionate case for the importance of adaptive trial and error in tackling issues such as climate change, poverty, and financial crises—as well as in fostering innovation and creativity in our business and personal lives.  

Taking us from corporate boardrooms to the deserts of Iraq, Adapt clearly explains the necessary ingredients for turning failure into success. It is a breakthrough handbook for surviving—and prospering— in our complex and ever-shifting world.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:01 -0400)

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Outlines a counterintuitive approach to changing the world by assessing its failures, drawing on myriad disciplines to argue that complex challenges must be met through adaptive trial-and-error practices that do not depend on expert opinions or ready-made solutions.… (more)

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