Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure by Tim Harford - Book review

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Why Success Always Starts with Failure

By: Tim Harford

Published: May 8, 2012
Format: Paperback, 352 pages
ISBN-10: 1250007550
ISBN-13: 978-1250007551
Publisher: Picador

"What is striking about the market system is not how few failures there are, but how ubiquitous failure is even in the most vibrant growth industries", writes former economist at the World Bank and an economics tutor at Oxford University, Tim Harford, in his pioneering and thought provoking book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. The author describes why so much failure happens in an overall successful economic system, why failure is a crucial part of success, and adapting to shifting economic conditions and mistakes is so important for business.

Tim Harford understands that not only is the economy extremely complex, but even the activities, that take place within companies and in our daily lives, are also more intricate than is usually realized by many. Problems of ever increasing difficulty are becoming more economy on every scale. People have become used to looking to leaders to meet those challenges, overcome the obstacles, and provide useful solutions. Tim Harford points out that such is not the case, and that the typical solutions offered by leaders result in failure. The author presents a powerful alternative approach to traditional leadership models. This fresh model is based on adapting to circumstances, drawing on a very wide range of leaders and followers, and utilizing trial and error effectively to find innovative solutions.

Tim Harford (photo left) recognizes that the world is much too complex at every level, for experts to understand fully, and for standard solutions to be effective any longer. The author demonstrates how the usual strategies are insufficient to meet the challenges of complexity, and very often are the cause of catastrophic failure themselves.

Tim Harford offers compelling evidence that traditional hierarchical management systems, complex systems, and tightly coupled systems all carry elements of risk. When combined, the potential for disaster is multiplied many times over. These systems are all too often not able to adapt to the inevitable problems or disasters that may befall them.

Tim Harford provides evidence that complexity alone will not create catastrophic system failure, but when tightly coupled, or faced with non-adaptive leadership, then complexity can lead to complete system failure. The author presents the model of the adaptive organization, of the adaptive individual, as alternatives to the traditional approaches to leadership and strategy. The author recommends an adaptable model based on the following principles:

* Try new things expecting some of them to fail
* Make failure survivable through small steps on the proper scale
* Know when failure has happened to ensure learning from that failure

For me, the power of the book is how Tim Harford provides an entirely fresh approach to systems, based on embracing failure and adapting to even the most unexpected change. The author presents a systems based analysis of why failure happens, and how it can be catastrophic, limited, or the first step to creativity and innovation. Through a multidisciplinary methodology, Tim Harford draws from from widely diverse fields to gain insights into the problems facing other very different endeavors.

The key to the author's analysis is making the key connections between what appears on the surface to be widely disparate concepts. Instead, the author seeks analogy, relationships, and patterns. Tim Harford illustrates his concepts with cases and anecdotes that show the principles in action. Far from being a book that fears failure, it is a study that considers understanding and learning from failure the critical first step toward discovering real solutions to even the most challenging problems.

I highly recommend the insightful and systems driven book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford, to anyone seeking a deeper understanding of the important role that failure' trial and error, and adapting to circumstances play in overall success in any field. This book provides a road map to recognizing failure, and learning from those mistakes, to create innovative and effective solutions.

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