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Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure    by Tim Harford order for
by Tim Harford
Order:  USA  Can
Picador, 2012 (2011)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Carrol Wolverton

Adapt or die. Conventional wisdom isn't. If you've always done something a particular way, it's probably wrong. There are probably newer and better ways out there. New blood isn't new for long, neither are new ideas. Corporations by their very legal structure are designed to fail. If a good idea somehow emerges despite all efforts to squelch it, everyone jumps aboard to compete. This British economist may sound jaded at times, but he's also right. There's nothing like a Brit pointing out to Americans where we have gone wrong. They have a few of their own examples as well. He doesn't miss them.

The best and most productive ideas come from experimentation and failure. Both are required for success. Unfortunately, many organizations and companies fight like mad to hold onto the old order. People do, too, particularly when a change might mean job loss. I would add to this list educational administrations. Whereas students may be alive with new approaches, the older order resists all too often.

In the author's song of change, nothing is exempt. Evolutionary change can be watched and studied in our constantly evolving biological world. Guppies change color depending on where they hatch. The brightest guppies get eaten first if they enter or are born into the wrong environment.

How do people handle changes? Badly. How dare you threaten my job? I don't care if DNA evidence says this convicted criminal is innocent. We think he did it anyway and used a condom. Don't tell me I'm doing something wrong.

The bigger and more structured an organization, the harder it is to implement change or introduce new ideas. Leaders fight innovation and often see it as a threat to authority. It takes a very secure individual to admit publicly that he or she is wrong. Humans are masters at deluding themselves. Harford offers a long list as evidence.

Whistleblowers are a good thing when not destroyed by ridicule. He recommends cash awards or prizes as a way to get new ideas out there without destroying the innovator. The correct way to study changes needed is through controlled experiments with control groups and careful, documented observation. Too often, this does not occur. One tragic example is Dr. Spock's iconic baby book that recommended that babies should sleep on their stomachs. Although it made perfect sense to the good doctor, it also resulted in crib deaths. No one studied the subject until generations later.

Is any corporation doing things right? Harford offers Whole Foods Markets as one example. He also likes Google's corporate strategy, which is no strategy. We must learn to fail productively.

Although highly opinionated, Tim Harford's well-written book reads like a long lecture on change. Medical blood letting went on for some three hundred years before being debunked. Adaptation requires more modern human bloodletting.

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