Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

Author Q&A with Tim Harford So are you an economic missionary, or is this just something that you love to do? It began as something that I love to do--and I think I am now starting to get a sense of it being a mission. People can use economics and they can use statistics and numbers to get at the truth and there is a real appetite for doing so. This is such a BBC thing to say--the...

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Title:Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure
Author:Tim Harford
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Edition Language:English

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure Reviews

  • Adam Wiggins

    Adapt has a clear and compelling thesis, and is strikingly well-written -- the two traits I seek most from non-fiction works.

    My summary of the thesis: success in anything is best achieved through lightweight experimentation, copious failure (and the learning that goes with it), and a rigorous selection algorithm.

    Stated this way, it sounds obvious, but this is the opposite of how most for-profit companies, governments, and individuals behave in their own pursuits: big inve

    Adapt has a clear and compelling thesis, and is strikingly well-written -- the two traits I seek most from non-fiction works.

    My summary of the thesis: success in anything is best achieved through lightweight experimentation, copious failure (and the learning that goes with it), and a rigorous selection algorithm.

    Stated this way, it sounds obvious, but this is the opposite of how most for-profit companies, governments, and individuals behave in their own pursuits: big investments in centralized attempts at innovation, unwillingness to change course in the face of failure, unwillingness to embrace the chaos of free experimentation.

    Though the top-level concept is abstract, Harford uses copious concrete examples, including historical anecdotes and studies from psychology and economics. The story of the Spitfire (an experimental air-to-air combat plane that may have been the key weapon that allowed Britain to defend itself from German invasion during World War II) illustrates how unexpected innovation can come from wild experiments, in this case funded by prize money very similar to today's X-Prize.

    This could easily be a book on business, as it explores the success of companies with internal cultures of experimentation (such as Google, Whole Foods, and Gor-Tex), and touches on the innovator's dilemma. It also could be a book on military strategy, as it explores how lack of pluralism and dissenting opinion led to the disaster in Iraq, and how experimentation not approved by top-ranking officers eventually turned the situation around.

    It could be a book on governance, as it explores failures of centralization in socialist and democratic economies, including the US banking catastrophe of 2008. It could be a book on social policy, as it devotes a chapter to trying to solve environmental issues through free market mechanics. It could even be a self-help book, as the final chapter explores how to experiment with one's own identity and personal pursuits, and the importance of friends and family who can be supportive and yet provide crucial constructive criticism.

    My only complaint would be that in a few places it seemed to over-simplify slightly, and in those cases the writing style had a tendency to come across as slightly smug. But it's a minor quibble in an otherwise very solid work.

  • Doug

    An amalgam of

    and

    (and probably a couple other books) in a much more accessible format. His basic theory is that individuals and organizations should not be afraid to fail, and in order to adapt, should 'try new things, in the expectations that some will fail; to make failure survivable, because it will be common; and to make sure that you know wh

    An amalgam of

    and

    (and probably a couple other books) in a much more accessible format. His basic theory is that individuals and organizations should not be afraid to fail, and in order to adapt, should 'try new things, in the expectations that some will fail; to make failure survivable, because it will be common; and to make sure that you know when you’ve failed.' He perhaps oversimplifies things and relies too much on anecdotes and case studies, but I give him a pass because I already read up on the underlying theory and his entertaining writing style makes it really easy to read and understand.

  • Chris Dymond

    Some reviewers have admonished Tim Harford for repeating the same thesis over and over again & effectively turning a whole bunch of blog posts into a book. I disagree - the parameters of adaption change with context - frequency & diversity of variation, consequences of failure, cultural appetite for experimentation, etc. - so the book doesn't so much repeat but investigate the contextual nuances of a (not particularly groundbreaking but fascinating nonetheless) initial idea. And I think

    Some reviewers have admonished Tim Harford for repeating the same thesis over and over again & effectively turning a whole bunch of blog posts into a book. I disagree - the parameters of adaption change with context - frequency & diversity of variation, consequences of failure, cultural appetite for experimentation, etc. - so the book doesn't so much repeat but investigate the contextual nuances of a (not particularly groundbreaking but fascinating nonetheless) initial idea. And I think it does so excellently. Besides, turning blog posts into a book seems like a pretty sensible way of converting convenience into value to me...

  • Affad Shaikh

    I appreciate this book. I found it to be profound in the way it presented failure. I am currently reading whatever books I can on failure, and find that in this particular approach by the Harford, the frame that provides an understanding to mitigate failure is the best articulated, in terms of general process.

    If you accept that "failure is not an option" is an oddity of thought given how failure itself has led to so many new and exciting developments, then the question turns on what

    I appreciate this book. I found it to be profound in the way it presented failure. I am currently reading whatever books I can on failure, and find that in this particular approach by the Harford, the frame that provides an understanding to mitigate failure is the best articulated, in terms of general process.

    If you accept that "failure is not an option" is an oddity of thought given how failure itself has led to so many new and exciting developments, then the question turns on what is failure? Defining failure I find is incredibly tricky, and Harford approaches this not with definitive answers, but rather by side stepping the whole project. Instead, he jumps into the subject of 'failure' from the associated explanation of why 'something may fail' - complexity.

    I found this odd, and maybe if readers were approaching the subject like me, would be turned off by the approach; quite possibly even dismiss the book. However, this being the fifth book I have picked up on the subject, I found the presentation novel, and a bit refreshing. Failure is not a black and white environment, and when dealing with human nature and psychology, it becomes quickly complicated.

    What I appreciate about Harford is his framing of how to deal with complexity, without completely failing- whatever your choice of definition for this may be (remember all humans eventually 'fail' as well, we all die, so failure could be defined as death, as Danner and Coopersmith put forward in 'The Other F word"). The framework, Palchinsky principles, requires that one embrace risk by trying new things and seeking out new ideas; second, but do this on a scale where failure (mistake making possibly) is survivable; and finally, figure out a feedback loop to learn from those mistakes along the way. Harford spends a good amount of time debunking the "common sense" response a reader may have with a healthy amount of, and incredibly some jaw-droppingly unbelievable, examples of how humans, on all levels, do not act or live in that "common sense" perspective.

    Finally, I was especially appreciative of the final chapter in applying the Palchinsky principles inwardly. Harford took care to present some practical advice on what an inward process of Palchinsky principles may look like, what features one may need to sustain the process, and make it possible to realize a healthy relationship with failure. If I could convince you to read the book, it would be simply because of this aspect, however, the book is filled with wonderful features that speak to a wide breadth of interests and challenges. The content itself sits in a place of intersectionality that lends itself well to cross over to interests and challenges not mentioned or discussed by Harford.

  • Lois Keller

    An interesting collection of anecdotal evidence to try to key on what brings long term success. It's definitely biased towards the author's thinking/exposure, but it is really interesting and I think Tim Harford has something here. Definitely a fun read about applied data science.

  • Sairam Krishnan

    Very interesting thesis and supporting narrative. Tim Harford is quite a good writer. Does feel like it could have been a bit shorter, though, but not complaining. There's enough in there to provoke a lot of thought and action.

  • Chris

    Harford’s Adapt is all about making a product, process, or person better by trial and error. I took a class in user interface design at UCLA led by former Apple designers that demonstrated the power of starting with a quick, rough prototype then refining it based on user tests to gather feedback. This book illustrates this adaption technique with many interesting examples. If you haven’t read Harford’s prior book, The Undercover Economist, I’d recommend reading that first although these books ar

    Harford’s Adapt is all about making a product, process, or person better by trial and error. I took a class in user interface design at UCLA led by former Apple designers that demonstrated the power of starting with a quick, rough prototype then refining it based on user tests to gather feedback. This book illustrates this adaption technique with many interesting examples. If you haven’t read Harford’s prior book, The Undercover Economist, I’d recommend reading that first although these books are independent.

  • Daniel Namie

    "Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure" by Tim Harford should never have developed into a book. Entertaining and inevitably true, success does and always starts with failure, but to continuously argue the point for 275 pages become cumbersome and tedious. To credit Harford's book, I did enjoy the first 100 pages, which should of stopped there. "Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure" is a much more applicable essay/thesis than a book.

  • Stephanie Thoma

    Similar to Freakanomics, with late 20th century pop culture and historical accounts, and indirectly allude to learning from failure. I prefer Freakonimics (content and style) but enjoyed pieces of this book.

    Some things I learned:

    - ' A person who has not made peace with his losses is likely to accept gambles that would be unacceptable to him otherwise.'

    This certainly explains some downward spirals/mid-life crises. A good friend, or reconnecting with common sense to cut lo

    Similar to Freakanomics, with late 20th century pop culture and historical accounts, and indirectly allude to learning from failure. I prefer Freakonimics (content and style) but enjoyed pieces of this book.

    Some things I learned:

    - ' A person who has not made peace with his losses is likely to accept gambles that would be unacceptable to him otherwise.'

    This certainly explains some downward spirals/mid-life crises. A good friend, or reconnecting with common sense to cut losses is beneficial. The tv show "Deal or No Deal," shows this in action, as people decline deals that are statistically sound to settle on, only to have most people continue on their losing streak to walk away with next to, or literally, nothing.

    - Well-meanings advice can be fatal, and should always be cross-checked with other resources and judgement

    The example presented was Spock's "Baby and Child Care," (1956) advising parents against putting children to sleep on their backs. This faulty advice resulted in about 60k deaths 1970-88, when new evidence revealed the opposite was best.

    - Experiment and accept feedback in preparation of the big show; have a validation squad'

    "Movin' Out" was a play that was destined for Broadway- stellar writers and actors, only to earn atrocious reviews. Instead of settling with embarrassment and her ego, the playwright Tharp revised the play, taking feedback into account. By the time that it debuted on Broadway, the reviews had shifted to public acclaim. The key here was to fail (somewhat) privately first, then dazzle in the bigger leagues.

  • John

    Maybe I had a different experience with this book because of the audiobook edition that I listened to (rather than reading it). As other reviewers have said, a relatively basic, powerful and useful thesis is in play here, with a variety of different angles and things to consider...all very loosely tied to the thesis through the *heavy* use of too-diverse anecdote which is expected to be self-evident and stand on its own without being explicitly tied back to the thesis.

    Additionally, new concepts

    Maybe I had a different experience with this book because of the audiobook edition that I listened to (rather than reading it). As other reviewers have said, a relatively basic, powerful and useful thesis is in play here, with a variety of different angles and things to consider...all very loosely tied to the thesis through the *heavy* use of too-diverse anecdote which is expected to be self-evident and stand on its own without being explicitly tied back to the thesis.

    Additionally, new concepts are introduced willy-nilly...you never know if you're getting a return to a relatively bedrock "Palchinski principle" concepts or the sudden (and never to be reiterated) introduction of a new sub-topic or concept on how to improve efficiencies in the narrow context of specific industries.

    This is a 10 hour audiobook. New concepts for viewing the core principles in pretty substantially different lights were being introduced 6 minutes before the end of the book, far into the final chapter. The conclusion that summarized the overall concepts began 3 minutes before the end of the book. There's good stuff here. The thesis is solid and useful. The anecdotes are entertaining. The book is too long for being as loosely tied together and imprecisely argued as it is.

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