Economist Tim Harford’s “Adapt:” Trial and Error the Only Path to Success

AdaptEconomist Tim Harford‘s ADAPT: WHY SUCCESS ALWAYS STARTS WITH FAILURE is a hard-headed, sturdy rationalist’s look at why it’s important to try, try, and try again when looking for success because it’s nearly impossible to find it any other way.  Harford uses real world examples to illuminate the very real premise being explored here: people make mistakes all the time, and so do companies.  The only way anyone gets anywhere is to learn from mistakes, or, in other words, to adapt.

The first “real world” premise Harford explores is Thomas Thwaites’ “Toaster Project.”  Thwaites, a postgraduate student in design at the Royal College of Art in London, decided to re-make the toaster from scratch.  In the process, Thwaites learned that the humble toaster is much more ingenious of an apparatus than it seems; it contains hundreds of small, moving parts.  Think about the amount of time it took for people to design a workable toaster, then think about how the toaster has adapted to become safer, cheaper, and more reliable over time — then think about Thwaites, who finally figured out how to manufacture a toaster from scratch, only to watch it short-circuit once he plugged it into a modern power system.

This very first example in the book — about a page in length — illustrates Harford’s main point.  It took many, many years to make the modern toaster, with presumably many, many failures between its inception as an invention in 1893 and its modern incarnation circa today’s date.  But there was a proven demand for a working toaster (for example, we know the Romans liked toast), which is why many people worked on the idea and perfected it.

With many other ideas, it’s not clear as to whether or not an innovation will succeed.  Yet if military commanders in Iraq or Afghanistan had refused to adapt, would there have been any success whatsoever in those theatres?  And when corporations fail to adapt to deal with known problems and concerns, as did TransOcean prior to the recent Gulf oil disaster, that just makes the magnitude of the disaster a thousand times worse.  Harford discusses these examples, and explains why some companies (and armies) adapt and succeed, while others refuse to adapt and fail.

Mind, as Harford also explains, success in business can be extremely fleeting.  At the start of the 20th century, names like Pullman and Singer dominated the top 100 companies/corporations, yet by the end of the century, they were nowhere to be found.  (And just saying that the technology was outmoded isn’t enough to explain their decline and failure; Harford points out that Toyota started its business life constructing looms.)  Only a few companies, like General Electric, stood the test of time for a century, which proves there’s value in successful adaptation.

Harford spends a considerable amount of time discussing iconoclasts, like mouse geneticist Mario Capecchi.  Capecchi determined at various points of his life what would work best for him, and did not deviate from this course.  So for some people, refusing to adapt is the right strategy; it’s a way of letting the world “catch up” to them, which is actually their way of adapting to changing circumstances in a strange, roundabout point of view.

Harford also spends time discussing the importance of telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth in order to help an company survive and thrive in an ever-changing marketplace.  A successful organization, whether it’s the United States Army or Whole Foods Market, wants people to tell them the truth about whether or not something is working.  This goes contrary to the belief that “only the ‘yes man’ can climb the corporate ladder” because the successful commander (or captain of industry) wants the truth with no sugar coating whatsoever and often has to “re-train” people how to speak their minds before he or she ends up with a valued team member/subordinate.  Harford shows that it’s often the commander who refuses to be told the party-line — and who makes something out of a dead-end job or assignment, as did David Petreus at one point in his career — that will succeed.  There’s evidently great evolutionary value in iconoclasm, short-term or long.  (Who knew?)

Finally, Harford (aka “The Undercover Economist,”) dons his economist’s hat to discuss the global economic meltdown of 2007-8.  He explained that the market failed to adapt to changing circumstances, failed again to adapt to the huge increase in markets, and failed yet again in implementing any useful regulation that might’ve slowed things down.  Only an eleventh-hour solution, thought up by a number of incredibly bright people, saved the world economy from tanking any further, but the process was a brutal one that the world is still trying to recover from to this day; Harford’s unstated, though very real, point here is that organizations must “think outside the box” now and again to realize potential problems exist in order to try to circumvent them in advance.  And woe betide them (and us) if they fail to understand — and perform — this critically important step.

In short, Harford’s ADAPT is a witty book that’s fun to read, yet is also erudite and literate — a neat trick, that.  It’s a book that will stay on your shelf to be read again and again because it has a great deal to say about business, economics, adaptation (natch), iconoclasm, and much, much more. 

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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