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Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure [Paperback]

Tim Harford
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

June 5 2012
The Undercover Economist - famed for his explanations - now offers solutions.

Tim Harford introduces a new way of thinking about how to solve the world's most urgent problems, from climate change to terrorism, African poverty to global finance - even the problems we encounter in our own daily lives. When faced with such challenges, we instinctively look to leaders, experts, and gurus to provide us with pre-chewed solutions. Harford argues that the world has become too unpredictable and complex for that. Instead, we must adapt - improvise rather than plan, work from the bottom up, take baby steps.

Adapt draws on exciting new work by passionate young economists and on innovative ideas from across the sciences. It looks at how and why innovation really comes about, extolling the value of trial and error and arguing that we should learn to embrace failure. Above all, Adapt applies hard-won lessons learned in the field, from a spaceport in the Mojave Desert to the street of Iraq, from a blazing offshore drilling rig to the frozen tundra of Siberia. The book shows that it's up to individuals - us - to change the world.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Undercover Economist’s latest, winning theory is that making mistakes helps people to succeed. . . . This is an excellent book. . . . utterly compelling.”
The Sunday Times (UK)
“Intelligent exploration that draws thoughtful conclusions on highly complex world events. . . . [Harford’s] claims might not be as decisive as his American contemporaries—also riding the wave of popular economics—but they are more robust and as a consequence more significant.”
City A.M. (UK)
“A novel approach to problem-solving.” 
Big Think

“Terrific new book. . . . Harford is a gifted writer whose prose courses swiftly and pleasurably. He has assembled a powerful combination of anecdotes and data to make a serious point: companies, governments and people must recognise the limits of their wisdom and embrace the muddling of mankind.”
Financial Times

 “[A] wealth of fascinating case studies.”
The New York Times (The 6th Floor)

“Persuasive new book. . . . [Harford] knows how to deal with complicated subjects in lay terms, gracefully holding a line of accessible elucidation without veering into patronising oversimplification. . . . Harford’s invitation to a fireside chat in No 10, if not issued already, cannot be far off.”
the Guardian (UK)
“Harford’s case histories are well chosen and artfully told, making the book a delight to read. But its value is greater than that. Strand by strand, it weaves the stories into a philosophical web that is neat, fascinating and brilliant. Like the best popular science, it advances the subject as well as conveying it, drawing intriguing conclusions about how to run companies, armies and research labs. . . . It would be hard to improve Harford’s outstanding book.”
“A very good read. . . . open, clear and persuasive.”
Management Today (UK)
“Conjures inspiring visions of redemption from the wreckage of failure. . . . an interesting guide for determined and open-minded entrepreneurs.”
Mortgage Strategy (UK)

From the Hardcover edition.

About the Author

TIM HARFORD is the author of the bestseller The Undercover Economist, The Logic of Life and Dear Undercover Economist. He is a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times and a regular contributor to Slate, Forbes, and NPR's Marketplace. He was the host of the BBC TV series Trust Me, I'm an Economist and now presents the BBC series More or Less. Harford has been an economist at the World Bank and an economics tutor at Oxford University. He lives in London with his wife and two daughters.

From the Hardcover edition.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Parents Need this for Their Children. April 7 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
When I originally bought this book it was for management type reading and it was only after reading it a second time that I realized that while it is a good "management" type book that the real value of it is that it tells every parent something that we are prone to forget. When we were growing up (depending on your age cohort) our parents let us figure things out. Too frequently today parents try to organize every aspect of their child's life - there is no room to experiment and to fail as part of the learning process, since if our kids fail we see it as a reflection on ourselves. At work we need room to fail in order to learn and grow and there is no doubt that we need to give our children the same freedom. So you can get it for business reading but parents need it more.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Natural selection and the creative process June 23 2013
After reading and then re-reading this book, I remain unconvinced that success [begin italics] always [end italics] starts with failure but agree with Tim Harford that it frequently does, usually through a process of trial and error in combination with experimentation and elimination. There are two keys to the success of that process: learn from each error, and, do not repeat it. Long ago, Charles Darwin observed, "It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change." I was again reminded of that observation as I began to work my way through Tim Hartford's lively and eloquent narrative.

Here are his own thoughts about the resiliency that is required of those who seek success, however defined: "The ability to adapt requires a sense of security, an inner confidence that the cost of failure [what I prefer to view as non-success or not-as-yet-success] is a cost we will be able to bear. Sometimes that takes real courage; at other times all that is needed is the happy self-delusion of a lost three-year-old. Whatever its source, we need that willingness to risk failure. Without it, we will never succeed."

The quest for business success involves constant experimentation. Obviously, the prospects for success are improved substantially within a workplace culture that encourages, supports, recognizes, and rewards prudent experimentation. But, as with ideas, the more experiments that are conducted, the more likely that there will be a breakthrough. The first challenge to leaders is to establish such a culture; the next and greater challenge is to sustain it. Harford has written this book to help his reader respond effectively to both challenges.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A must read ! March 5 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
If you are trying to make sense of our economics revolution, this book is a must read for all ! The author explains in simple laymen terms why we must accept to adapt in order to survive and ride the wave ! Agreat piece of work !
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4.0 out of 5 stars Changed my perspective on success Jan. 28 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This book has truly made me appreciate the long game and how it applies to my career and overall joy in life.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.2 out of 5 stars  70 reviews
63 of 67 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Blueprint for Adapting April 4 2011
By John Chancellor - Published on
Vine Customer Review of Free Product
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.
92 of 101 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting anecdotes, unconvincing thesis May 22 2011
By PriceTheory - Published on
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.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Important book May 10 2011
By Aretae - Published on
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.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic look at what works in the real world May 30 2011
By Jeffrey Yutzler - Published on
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.
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tim Harford's "Adapt" a study of failure, reward. April 9 2011
By Barb Caffrey - Published on
Vine Customer Review of Free Product
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.

Barb Caffrey
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