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Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by [Harford, Tim]
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Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure Kindle Edition

4.4 out of 5 stars 55 customer reviews

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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.

Review

Tim Harford has done it again. An excellent book full of insight and surprise... I wish I had written this book -- Evan Davis 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

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 924 KB
  • Print Length: 320 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1408701529
  • Publisher: Abacus (2 Jun. 2011)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B004XCFJ4S
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Screen Reader: Supported
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars 55 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #73,689 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Paperback
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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Format: Hardcover
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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book brings a relatively simple message which is convincingly argued and illustrated by telling examples related to very topical subjects (climate change, how to tackle poverty, the financial meltdown, the war in Iraq...).
Harford posits that the world has become such a complicated place that it is not realistic to imagine that on basis of a rational analysis of data ready-made solutions on all problems can be found. It is more realistic to arrive at appropriate solutions by testing different scenarios, by evaluating them subsequently and selecting the solution best adapted to the circumstances. Failures are inherent to this method, however are useful and should lead to better solutions, hence the book's subtitle `Why success always starts with failure'.

As is amply shown by a wide range of examples a lot of companies and institutions have purely centralised organisations which ignore mostly the practical experiences of people in the field, with oftentimes awful consequences for these same people and catastrophic results for the whole organisation.

Harford demonstrates this by the experience of the American army in Iraq. The American defense secretary Ronald Rumsfeld was a dogmatic proponent of a centrally commanded army, which bases its top-down orders almost exclusively on its advanced information and communication technology. That the officers in the field needed some flexibility to react to local circumstances and that some instructions were utterly inappropriate was completely ignored by central command. This culminated in Ronald Rumsfeld not accepting reality and is tellingly illustrated by his stubborn, absurd refusal to use the word `insurgency' in a press-conference on Iraq, a word that most appropriately described the situation at that moment.
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