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Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure [Kindle Edition]

Tim Harford
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Everything we know about solving the world’s problems is wrong.

Out: Plans, experts and above all, leaders.

In: Adapting - improvise rather than plan; fail, learn, and try again

In this groundbreaking new book, Tim Harford shows how the world’s most complex and important problems - including terrorism, climate change, poverty, innovation, and the financial crisis - can only be solved from the bottom up by rapid experimenting and adapting.

From a spaceport in the Mojave Desert to the street battles of Iraq, from a blazing offshore drilling rig to everyday decisions in our business and personal lives, this is a handbook for surviving - and prospering - in our complex and ever-shifting world.

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Amazon Review

Author Q&A with Tim Harford

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--there’s almost a public service mission to be fulfilled in educating people about economics. When I wrote The Undercover Economist, it was all about my pure enthusiasm for the subject; the book is full of stuff I wanted to say and that is always the thing with the books: they are always such fun to write.

Do you think that people these days are generally more economically literate?

People are now aware of economics for various reasons. There are the problems with the economy--there is always more interest in economics when it is all going wrong.

Where is the border line in your new book between economics and sociology?

I don’t draw a border line, and particularly not with the new book. The Undercover Economist was basically all the cool economics I could think of and The Logic of Life was me investigating a particular part of economics. All of the references in The Logic of Life were academic economics papers that I had related--and hopefully made more fun. This new book, Adapt, is very different. I have started by asking what is wrong with the world, what needs fixing, how does it work--and if economics can tell us something about that (which it can) then I have used it. And if economics is not the tool that you need--if you need to turn to sociology or engineering or biology or psychology--I have, in fact, turned to all of them in this book. If that’s what you need, then that’s where I have gone. So I have written this book in a different way: I started with a problem and tried to figure out how to solve it.

What specific subjects do you tackle?

To be a bit more specific, the book is about how difficult problems get solved and I look at quick change; the banking crisis; poverty; innovation, as I think there is an innovation slow-down; and the war in Iraq. Also, I look at both problems in business and in everyday life. Those are the big problems that I look at--and my conclusion is that these sorts of problems only ever get solved by trial and error, so when they are being solved, they are being solved through experimentation, which is often a bottom-up process. When they are not being solved it is because we are not willing to experiment, or to use trial and error.

Do you think companies will change to be much more experimental, with more decisions placed in the hands of employees?

I don’t think that is necessarily a trend, and the reason is that the market itself is highly experimental, so if your company isn’t experimental it may just happen to have a really great, successful idea--and that’s fine; if it doesn’t, it will go bankrupt. But that said, it is very interesting to look at the range of companies who have got very into experimentation--they range from the key-cutting chain Timpson’s to Google; you can’t get more different than those two firms, but actually the language is very similar; the recruitment policies are similar; the way the employees get paid is similar.

The “strap line” of the book is that “Success always starts with failure.” You are a successful author… so what was the failure that set you up for success?

I was working on a book before The Undercover Economist… it was going to be a sort of Adrian Mole/Bridget Jones’ Diary-styled fictional comedy, in which the hero was this economist and through the hilarious things that happened to him, all these economic principles would be explained--which is a great idea--but the trouble is that I am not actually funny. Another example would be my first job as a management consultant… and I was a terrible management consultant. I crashed out after a few months. Much better that, than to stick with the job for two or three years-- a lot of people say you have got to do that to “show your commitment.” Taking the job was a mistake--why would I need to show my commitment to a mistake? Better to realise you made a mistake, stop and do something else, which I did.

That idea that “failure breeds success” is central to most entrepreneurs. Do you think we need more of it in the UK?

I think that the real problem is not failure rates in business; the problem is failure rates in politics. We need a much higher failure rate in politics. What actually happens is politicians--and this is true of all political parties--have got some project and they’ll say, “Right, we are going to do this thing,” and it is quite likely that idea is a bad idea--because most ideas fail; the world is complicated and while I don’t have the numbers for this, most ideas are, as it turns out, not good ideas.

But they never collect the data, or whatever it is they need to measure, to find out where their idea is failing. So they have this bad idea, roll this bad idea out and the bad idea sticks, costs the country hundreds, millions, or billions of pounds, and then the bad idea is finally reversed by the next party on purely ideological grounds and you never find out whether it really worked or not. So we have this very, very low willingness to collect the data that would be necessary to demonstrate failure, which is the bit we actually need.

To give a brief example: Ken Livingstone, as Mayor of London, came along and introduced these long, bendy buses. Boris Johnson came along and said, “If you elect me, I am going to get rid of those big bendy buses and replace them with double-decker buses.” He was elected and he did it, so… which one of them is right? I don’t know. I mean, isn’t that crazy? I know democracy is a wonderful thing and we voted for Ken Livingstone and we voted for Boris Johnson, but it would be nice to actually have the data on passenger injury rates, how quickly people can get on and off these buses, whether disabled people are using these buses… the sort of basic evidence you would want to collect.

Based on that, are you a supporter of David Cameron’s “Big Society”, which in a sense favours local experimentation over central government planning?

Well, I have some sympathy for the idea of local experimentation, but what worries me is that we have to have some mechanism that is going to tell you what is working and what is not--and there is no proposal for that. Cameron’s Tories seem to have the view that ‘if it is local then it will work.’ In my book, I have all kinds of interesting case studies of situations where localism really would have worked incredibly well, as in, say, the US Army in Iraq. But I have also got examples of where localism did not work well at all--such as a corruption-fighting drive in Indonesia.

Is the new book, Adapt, your movement away from economic rationalist to management guru? Are you going to cast your eye over bigger problems?

The two changes in Adapt are that I have tried to start with the problem, rather than saying, “I have got a hammer--I’m going to look for a nail.” I started with a nail and said, “Ok, look, I need to get this hammered in.” So I have started with the problem and then looked anywhere for solutions. And the second thing is that I have tried to do is write with more of a narrative. This is not a Malcolm Gladwell book, but I really admire the way that people like Gladwell get quite complex ideas across because they get you interested in the story; that is something that I have tried to do more of here. I am not too worried about it, because I know that I am never going to turn into Malcolm Gladwell--I am always going to be Tim Harford--but it doesn’t hurt to nudge in a certain direction.

On Amazon, we recommend new book ideas to people: “If you like Tim Harford you may like…”, but what does Tim Harford also like?

I read a lot of books, mostly non-fiction and in two categories: people who I think write a lot better than I do, and people who think about economics more deeply than I do. In the first category I am reading people like Michael Lewis, Kathryn Schulz (I loved her first book, Being Wrong), Malcolm Gladwell and Alain de Botton. In the second category, I read lots of technical economics books, but I enjoy Steven Landsburg, Edward Glaeser (who has a book out now which looks good), Bill Easterly… I don’t necessarily agree with all of these people!

When I am not reading non-fiction, I am reading comic books or 1980s fantasy authors like Jack Vance.

Click here to read a longer version of this interview.


'Tim Harford has done it again.. he has produced another excellent book full of insight and surprise. Just when you were ready to write-off economists, ADAPT shows how broad and useful their thinking can be. I wish I had written this book' --Evan Davis, author of Made in Britain

'Tim Harford could well be Britain's Malcolm Gladwell. An entertaining mix of popular economics and psychology, this excellently written book contains fascinating stories of success and failure that will challenge your assumptions. Insightful and clever' --Alex Bellos, author of Alex's Adventures in Numberland

'Tim Harford has made a compelling and expertly informed case for why we need to embrace risk, failure, and experimentation in order to find great ideas that will change the world. I loved the book' --Dan Ariely, Author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality

'Harford's wide-ranging look at social adaptation is fresh, creative, and timely' --Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing

'Highly readable, entertaining argument against top-down design. It debunks the Soviet-Harvard command-and-control style of planning and approach to economic policies and regulations, and vindicates trial-and-error (particularly the error part in it) as a means to economic and general progress. Very impressive!'
--Nassim N Taleb, author of The Black Swan

`Outstanding . . . ADAPT is fine, funny and fluent. 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' --Matt Ridley, Nature

`An excellent ... utterly compelling' --John Arlidge, Sunday Times

'Tim Harford's terrific new book urges us to understand and profit from our muddling ... Harford is a gifted writer whose prose courses swiftly and pleasurable'
--Edward Glaeser, Financial Times

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 554 KB
  • Print Length: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group; 1st edition (2 Jun. 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004XCFJ4S
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (44 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #91,836 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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More About the Author

Tim Harford is a member of the Financial Times editorial board. His column, 'The Undercover Economist', which reveals the economic ideas behind everyday experiences, is published in the Financial Times and Slate. He is also the only economist in the world to run a problem page, 'Dear Economist'. Tim presented the BBC television series 'Trust Me, I'm an Economist' and now presents the BBC radio series 'More or Less'. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Forbes, New York magazine, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. Tim won the 2006 Bastiat Prize for economic journalism and is also an award-winning speaker.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
33 of 34 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some interesting ideas 26 Aug. 2011
By eeyore
This book starts really well with an interesting take on the idea that many successes arise from trial and error, and it's important to learn from what doesn't work. Tim Harford gives some novel examples on how individuals have managed to overcome "group think" and achieved success by breaking the established mode of doing things. Unfortunately, after a few chapters, I felt that there was some repetition and the book lost it's "aliveness". It seemed as though he had an idea for a book but then ran out things to say, so kept saying the same thing in a different way. Perhaps would have been better for being a shorter book with less repetition
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Success does not automatically start with failure 3 Sept. 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A bombardment of ideas presented through real life accounts of people, companies and events makes for stimulating reading. But the book never convincingly develops the theme of success always starting with failure.

Yes, Donald Rumsfeld's handling of the aftermath of the Iraq war adopted a flawed approach. Porteus and HM McMaster, who succeeded Rumsfeld, responded to conditions on the ground, adapted their policy to the circumstances and were judged to succeed. A top down approach similar to Rumsfeld's may have previously have been adopted by Lyndon Johnson and McNamara in Vietnam, but I am not clear about where the success was achieved. These examples are examples of similar misguided top down approaches being inappropriate - not necessarily that success always starts with failure.

On the argument that effective top down planning in the modern economy is rare, Tim Harford is more convincing. He holds that expert, professional judgement only has limited success in predicting outcomes. The market economy is like the biological, evolutionary process proceeding by trial and error and survival of the fittest. It responds to the ever shifting landscape and is too complicated for pundits to accurately predict outcomes.

Harford maintains that if trial and error and selection of the successful actions is key, then variation is important in providing multiple opportunities for organisms, or companies, to find the best reponse to a changing external environment. Planned, centralised organisations, like the NHS, operate at a huge disadvantage. A decentralised process of trial and error is the solution, bringing in pluralistic approaches and encouraging innovation.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A clear and coherent argument 18 Jun. 2011
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is a nicely balanced book, and it's very coherent. It draws together an argument that links the essential processes of evolution (variation, selection), and the idea of isolating and containing failure. Since failure is inevitable in complex environments, and a lot of modern life involves complex systems, the primary argument is therefore that we should anticipate failure and incorporate it in our organizations and policies. In more abstract terms, it's like using evolution as a search algorithm in a complex space - a concept I find very appealing.

Sprinkled throughout the book are supporting examples, some of which are covered in detail. A couple of chapters single out climate change and the financial meltdown as distinct examples of complex systems that would benefit from this kind of thinking.

It's one of the books I've made the most notes for on my Kindle; not necesarily because the points are profound, but because I liked the way they were expressed. There were a few aspects which I felt might have been a bit over-emphasised - a few references to a kind of macromutation, which I think is stretching the analogy a bit too far; and a few bits where I felt references were needed -- but I can't fault the book overall.

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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read for an economics newbie 4 July 2011
By Helen Hancox TOP 1000 REVIEWER
I'm not sure entirely who is expected to buy this latest book by Tim Harford, but I wonder if the person-in-the-street, such as myself, might just be a suitable audience, rather than other economists.

My knowledge of economics is extremely basic. I've read some of a book (in German) by a German economist friend, and I listen to More or Less on Radio 4, which is of course presented by Tim Harford. His excellent presentation style on that programme made me pick up this book with some anticipation.

I wasn't disappointed. The same friendly, chatty style appears throughout this book. Things are explained clearly and efficiently and you aren't left feeling like you're a bit thick if you aren't conversant with the latest economic theory. The book abounds with examples in daily life of what he's talking about, whether it's military engagements by the US army or employee benefits in Timpsons the keycutters. It made the book always interesting and lent authority to his arguments.

The book is very well structured with chapters dealing with overall situations (such as the Afghanistan/Iraq wars, climate change, the financial crisis, business structure) but broken down into many subheadings which mean it's easy to pick the book up and read for a few minutes without completely losing the thread. Tim Harford's research and wide-ranging knowledge help to make this a fascinating read.

I did feel that at times there was a fairly black and white presentation of events, particularly with regard to the hugely complex Afghanistan conflict. It was as if "it was all going wrong, and then someone adapted/came up with a new plan and now it's great.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars So if you are like most people and are scared of change read it ...
Read it if you are scared about "change". So if you are like most people and are scared of change read it very good book. Adapt or die.
Published 5 days ago by Cosmin Lapovita
5.0 out of 5 stars A fantastic book with many wonderful insights
This is an absorbing book covering a broad range of topics. The central message is that survivable failure is the key to success. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Paul Sloane
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Terrific book which should be read by everyone - especially politicians!
Published 1 month ago by Derrick J Byford
5.0 out of 5 stars Engaging and thought-provoking
The central thesis is that progress occurs through an evolutionary process of experimentation, discarding the failures and keeping the successes. Read more
Published 1 month ago by N. Weeds
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
as described quick delivery
Published 1 month ago by dresser99
5.0 out of 5 stars Well worth buying- full of interesting factual information on a ...
Well worth buying- full of interesting factual information on a very wide range of matters along with conclusions that challenge many normally accepted management concepts.
Published 1 month ago by Brian T Collins
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book
Really useful book, perfect for A Level economics students and great reading too, accessible, straightforward and also fun. Recommended for students of Economics and business
Published 8 months ago by St John's School Librarian
3.0 out of 5 stars Not read it yet
I bought a few books all at the same time and have just not had time to read this one yet.
Published 9 months ago by Mabassa
5.0 out of 5 stars Adapt
Tim Harford takes popular economics to a new level. This book isn't as instantly engaging as some others in the genre, but that's because he goes into much more depth. Read more
Published 10 months ago by GeordieReader
5.0 out of 5 stars Very insightful
Like many people, I am a bit of a fan of Tim Harford - his broadcasts have made people far more aware of figures and statistics (official or otherwise) - we all look at them twice... Read more
Published 12 months ago by Mr Andrew W N Probert
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