Review of “Adapt” by Tim Harford

Geoff Riley

9th May 2011

Tim Harford's “Adapt - why success always starts with failure" is an ambitious, entertaining and enthralling work that is immensely readable and which offers revealing insights and twists and surprises with remarkable frequency throughout the book. I sense that the tide is turning in the book publishing industry. After several years of hand-wringing and blood-letting in explaining the genesis of the global financial crisis, a new genre of books is emerging that is more optimistic in tone. Authors such as Steven Johnson (Where Good Ideas Come From), Martin Nowak and Roger Highfield (Super Co-operators) and John Kay (Obliquity) have all explored the conditions under which innovative ideas, altruistic behaviour and counter-intuitive business models can succeed in a constantly-changing economic and business landscape. Tim Harford's book is a hopeful and confident examination of the architecture of success in evolutionary environments where fear of failure, a lack of ambition and rigid policy-making can make matters worse and bring about environmental, economic and organisational collapse.

A cluster of heroes leave an indelible mark in Adapt and one of the joys of reading it is that one is instinctively drawn to find out more about them after the final page is turned.

These heroes range from Reginald Mitchell (an aeronautical engineer, best known for his design of the Supermarine Spitfire) to HR McMaster (a US soldier credited with securing the Iraqi city of Tal Afar and defeating the city's insurgent strongholds).

We learn about the work of Esther Duflo (a French economist at the heart of using randomised trials to improve the effectiveness of aid programmes) and Archie Cochrane (a Scottish doctor whose work during and after the Second World War drove forward the significance of evidence-based medicine.). Many more characters are woven into the story, among them John Timpson, the founder of the shoe repair business with a distinctively de-centralised management style. And Twyla Tharp, the American dancer and choreographer, and creative genius behind many successful Broadway shows.

All were people prepared to challenge the conventional wisdom, driven to engage in a never-ending mission to seek out and try new ideas, and most of all, to respond flexibly to a changing environment by spending time on the ground, with a worms-eye view rather than seeking to impose strategies from above. Their successes were not overnight or fleeting, and in some cases undoubtedly changed the course of history for many thousands of people. They were committed to trial and error and willing to recognise failures and set-backs as part of a search to find something better.

Another hero in the book is Peter Palchinsky, a Russian mining engineer who was imprisoned and executed by Stalin's government in 1929 after many years of dissent against the human cost of the top-down command and control approach to industrialisation in Soviet Russia. Tim Harford suggests 3 Palchinsky Principles shaped to encourage stronger innovation, better leadership and more effective policies:

1/ Variation - seek out new ideas and try new ideas

2/ Survivability - when trying something new do it on a scale where failure is survivable

3/ Selection - seek out feedback and learn from mistakes as you go along, avoid an instinctive reaction of denial

These principles provide a thread throughout the book. There are especially strong chapters on the case for a carbon tax, for wider use of prizes to fund innovation projects and also for randomised trials as a tool for better allocation of scarce development funds. I am writing this review on the morning that the Independent Banking Commission reveals their interim findings on reforms to the UK banking system - how prescient of Adapt that there is a superb section on reducing the risks of systemic failure in the financial sector by drawing on findings from deep research into errors in industrial safety.

I relish a book that makes clear connections with other authors whose work has excited me in the recent past and Adapt scores heavily in this regard. Insights from economists such as Paul Ormerod, Paul Romer, John Kay, Richard Thaler, Paul Klemperer, Daniel Kahnemann, Nassim Taleb and Amos Tversky all figure prominently at key points in the narrative.

Like the best coffee house, Tim Harford's “Adapt" provides a welcoming and generous space for ideas to mingle and I recommend it strongly to every ambitious student who wants to break free of an exam strait-jacket and broaden their understanding of what drives success in a spiky and volatile world.

Geoff Riley

Geoff Riley FRSA has been teaching Economics for over thirty years. He has over twenty years experience as Head of Economics at leading schools. He writes extensively and is a contributor and presenter on CPD conferences in the UK and overseas.

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