Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Adapt - or else!

It's a privilege and honour to have a guest post today from my friend Donna McPhail.  Donna and I met by chance at the Fortune Innovation Forum in New York a number of years ago and developed a friendship based on our shared passion for ideas.  We breakfast together from time to time and my husband is always amazed that a breakfast can take that looong.  But we always leave with a bunch of topics we wanted to discuss and never got around to.  I never come away without learning from these meetings.  And now I'm happy to share some of her wisdom here.

At our last breakfast, Donna was excited about a book she'd recently read, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, by Tim Harford.  Or as so eloquently put by Sonny in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, "Everything will be all right in the end; if it's not all right, then it's not yet the end".

I thought others would enjoy Donna's review of this book:

In Adapt, Tim Harford argues that complex or complicated problems are best solved through a process akin to evolutionary development.  Survival of the fittest doesn't mean survival of the strongest, but rather of those with the ability (accidental, usually) to adapt to the environment in a positive or influential way.

He outlines a fairly simple 'algorithm' for finding solutions - although these solutions can never be permanent since the environment itself is always changing.  The steps of the algorithm were developed by the early  20th Century economist Palchinsky.  They are paraphrased as follows.

Try new things in the expectation that some will fail.  This liberates you to try some very unexpected ideas, things that are quite wide-ranging.

Make the failures survivable because failure will be common.  This implies you should focus on small tests, rather than giant leaps of innovation, because small experiments are more survivable if they fail.  Look for buffers to protect you from failure.

Take the things that work and start all over again.  Try variations on the successes as well as new ideas.  Make sure you know what is working and what has failed.  When you discard the failures, make sure you understand why they have failed.  Then, if there's a simple 'fix', you can add that to the ideas you're testing again.

This instruction set is based on trial and error, not ideology or theory.  In fact, Harford seems convinced that theory can rarely solve complex problems, except perhaps in science, although even in science there can be fundamental paradigm shifts which overturn theory. 

Why did this book impress me so much?  Perhaps because it reinforced my slowly dawning rejection of ideology and theory as solutions to the world's problems -  apparent most obviously in the stalemate of US politics and in the pre-2007 rigid belief that markets are 'perfect', self-correcting, and amenable to mathematical modeling.  Theory simplifies complex situations too much.  It encourages a rigid attitude and an all-or-nothing approach to solutions.

In contrast, studies of successful people and companies would indicate that trial and error are the norm, that luck plays an important part in achievement, and that cross pollination of ideas is more likely to contribute to invention and innovation than sheer genius or theory.

While we often recognize these 'success factors', we don't always translate them to adoption of pragmatic testing of hypotheses.  Instead, we try to codify what did work into a new theory after observing one example of success.  Hence, for example, there is a new trend to micro-managing because Steve Jobs micro-managed everything.

An ideal summation comes from the father of economics, Friedrich von Hayek, as quoted in the beginning chapter of the book.  "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design."

Donna is an independent marketing and communications consultant in Toronto.