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16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read for an economics newbie
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...
Published on 4 July 2011 by Helen Hancox

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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some interesting ideas
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...
Published on 26 Aug 2011 by eeyore


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31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some interesting ideas, 26 Aug 2011
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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16 of 17 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 "Auntie Helen" (Essex, England) - See all my reviews
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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." Undoubtedly many of these adaptations made a significant difference but I wasn't convinced they were quite as magic-bullet as I felt they were portrayed. Another example is talking about the way some companies are structured. One of the companies mentioned in glowing terms throughout is one that an acquaintance works for and their story is somewhat different about life in that business. As always, there are many facets of each situation and life is complex but I felt that this didn't always come across in this book.

However, for an economics newbie such as myself it was a really good introduction to Harford's theme of adaptation - that innovation and variety are key to the health of economies, businesses, and more.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A clear and coherent argument, 18 Jun 2011
By 
J. Erlank (London, UK) - See all my reviews
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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.

Recommended.
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15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a Great Book!, 18 Jun 2011
I am a fan of Tim Harford. His two previous books, The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life are favourites of mine and this, his latest book, is possibly his best so far.

Much of what we read about the World in the media is ill-informed, inaccurate clap-trap. As an Economist, Tim Harford bases his observations upon measurable data which so often reveals that the way the World actually works, is very different from the way we think it works or the way we might want it to work.

This book is a bit different from the two that came before. It could be classed as a self-help book, in that it's central theme is that none of us are smart enough to know in advance what will succeed and what will fail and that the secret to a useful and satisfying life is to recognize this, be willing to conduct dumb experiments and accept that failure is all part of the game of life. If you don't experiment, you never fail, but then you can never win either. Successful people and organizations fail a lot, but when they will they do succeed, they do so in big ways.

The logic is tightly argued and examples are drawn from many topical examples, like the Iraq war, international aid programs and the banking crisis. Tim Harford's lucid, jargon free style coupled with his mastery of the topics and his central theme, provides fresh insight into why events unfolded as they did.

This is an easy and entertaining read that serves-up some valuable lessons to organizations and individuals alike.

Tim Harford
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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 Sep 2011
By 
M. Hillmann "miles" (leicester, england) - See all my reviews
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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. But then the throwaway observation that Walmart and Tesco are centralised but able to manage experimentation undermines the absolute necessity for this approach.

Harford tackles the obvious necessity for careful planning is some capital intensive industries, such as North Sea oil exploration, nuclear power stations or banking where trial and error is not an option. He approaches his solution with a richness of case studies. The solution he sees is making failure survivable by decoupling the system in which organisations operate.

An interesting section on why the patent system may produce a steady stream of high quality scientific research but does not lend itself to the revolutionary breakthrough is followed by a section on the use of prizes, as per Longitutude Prize in 1714 or prizes offered by Bill Gates today, in stimulating multiple approaches to a given problem.

Whilst thought provoking on a variety of novel ideas, the catchy title is not proven.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very repetitive, 29 Oct 2011
The author's other book Undercover Economist was much more interesting. This book is too repetitive. Same thing told over and over again which seemed just trying to stretch the story like elastic. The central theme is simple, good things come via trial and errors.
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10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intrepid investigation into ways we can solve big issues, 22 Jun 2011
By 
P. Gilham (UK) - See all my reviews
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This is another excellent book from Harford, but it's rather different in approach from his first two, The Undercover Economist and The Logic of Life. Rather than explaining the reasons everyday activities and processes work the way they do - no small feat in itself - Harford uses Adapt to examine the mechanics of solving problems.

Using a variety of well-researched and engaging examples, Harford points to simple trial and error as an essential part of tackling change and overcoming obstacles. Adapt takes its core theme from this notion, that small, frequent failures from which we can learn allow us to avoid infrequent but colossal mistakes.

Harford examines some very serious, pressing and in some cases ongoing problems, including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the insurgency faced by US troops in Iraq. He looks at why solutions imposed by distant managers from a central location often go wrong, while alternatives informed by the experience of people on the ground can often make the difference.

All too often, the architects of these improvised solutions are ignored, vilified or even killed, in the case of one visionary engineer who tried to deal with some of the Stalin regime's excesses. But Harford lays out the principle that listening to their suggestions can often save us from perhaps even more serious problems in the future.

Humans are rather different from single-celled creatures like paramecium, which navigates around by bumping repeatedly into objects, changing course slightly each time until it can continue. But it's a sobering thought that, metaphorically at least, we often need to rely on the same method. At the very least, we want to approach our own obstacles prepared to make changes early on - and Adapt can help us work out how.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Natural selection and the creative process, 23 Jun 2013
By 
Robert Morris (Dallas, Texas) - See all my reviews
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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. His approach is philosophical, yes, because there are significant issues with important implications and potential consequences to take into full account. However, in my opinion, his approach is also pragmatic and his recommendations are eminently do-able.

Peter Palchinsky (1875-1929) is one of the most fascinating people discussed in the book. He was a Russian industrial engineer (often viewed as a technocrat) whose progressive ideas about human rights during Stalin's consolidation of power led to several arrests and finally, execution by a firing squad. Here is Harford's brief but precise explanation of Palchinsky's principles: "First, try new things; second, try them in context where failure is survivable. But the third an critical step is how to react to failure...[to avoid] several oddities of the human brain that often prevent us from learning from our failures and becoming more successful...It seems to be the hardest thing in the world to admit that we have made a mistake and try to put it right."

These are among the dozens of passages of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Harford's coverage.

o The Soviet Union's "pathological inability to adapt" (Pages 21-27)
o Why learning from mistakes is hard (31-35)
o The Tal Afar experiment (50-56)
o Friedrich von Hayek and "knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and space" (74-78)
o Lottery tickets, positive black swans, and the importance of variation (83-86)
o Skunk Works and "freak machines" (86-89)
o "We should not try to design a better world. We should make better feedback loops." (140-143)
o The Greenhouse Effect, 1859 (154-156)
o The unexpected consequences of the Merton Rule" (169-174)
o Why safety systems bite back (186-190)
o Dominoes and zombie banks (200-202)
o Making experiments survivable (214-216)
o Adapting as we go along (221-224)
o Google's corporate strategy: have no corporate strategy (231-234)
o When companies become dinosaurs (239-244)
o "Challenge a status quo of your own making"(249-256)

Here is a brief excerpt from Chapter One: "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, and to the way in which traditional organisations work. The aim of this book is to provide an answer to that challenge."

Bullseye!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars If I'd only known..., 10 Jan 2013
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Fascinating book that I've already recommended to others. I only wish I'd had these insights while trying to fight my way through the corporate maelstrom. It would have helped to understand - and get around - the obstructionists. It all seems so obvious now. Harford's writing is clear, insightful, and entertaining. Nothing like the economics books I had to read in school.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring and amusing, 30 Nov 2012
By 
Gojko Adzic (London) - See all my reviews
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This is an inspiring and amusing argument for experimentation as a key strategic technique for the modern age. The book is full of amazing accounts of big plans that turned into epic disasters, from 19th century imperial Russian failures to organise mining to US military attempts to control Iraqi insurgencies and the recent meltdown of the banking sector. Harford compares those failures with successes such as the Spitfire airplane and Google's internet domination, suggesting the solution in the form of a checklist:

- Variation: seek out new ideas and try new things
- Survivability: try new things out at a scale where failure is survivable
- Selection: seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along

Harford calls this checklist the Palchinsky method, after an early 20th century Russian engineer Peter Palchinsky, who recognised that "real-world problems are more complex than we think", because of they have a human dimension and a local dimension, and are likely to change as circumstances change. I'm sure this will sound familiar to anyone who has ever been involved in a real-world software project. As the key aspects of this solution, Harford calls for adaptive planning and opening up lines of communication from the field to the planning office.

Harford focuses on innovation but also covers topics as diverse as the nature of mistakes, what causes latent errors that are not noticed until the very instant we can least afford them, strategic planning, effectiveness of expertise in today's fast-moving environment and isolating 'skunk-works' groups in large organisations.

This book deserves to be read by all business project and product sponsors, as well as anyone serious about delivering effective products and projects. If your boss needs convincing that lean startup ideas are good, and an explanation why It fits in nicely with the Lean Startup ideas, and explains why delivery plans should be more about options that could be explored instead of scope that is nailed down by committment. Authors strong views on climate change come through in the middle of the book where he argues about possible solutions, which I felt broke the reading flow and felt out of place in the book. However, the rest will surely be an interesting read for most people following my work. You'll be inspired by a ton of stories and great quotes. Here are some of my favourite ones:

- "Return on investment is simply not a useful way of thinking about new ideas and new technologies"
- "Ideal way to discover paths through a shifting landscape ... is to combine baby steps and speculative leaps"
- "For an organisation that needs to quickly correct its own mistakes, the org chart can be the worst possible road map"
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Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure
Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford (Paperback - 5 May 2011)
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