Summary of Adapt by Tim Harford

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Adapt by Tim Harford

In the world we live in, how does one come up with solutions? Whether it be politics, business or our personal lives, how do we know which is the best route to take? The simple answer is that we don’t. No matter what strategies you are advised to take or techniques you are supposed to implement there are no guarantees that something will work. 

This book summary proposes that instead of coming up with a plan on how to make decisions, we should rather try experimenting. How will we know what will work if we don’t try? And if you try and fail, that should not hinder you but instead, motivate you to keep on trying. 

In this summary readers will discover:

  • You can’t predict how things will turn out
  • Trial and error is your best approach
  • What companies should do
  • Feedback is important

Key lesson one: You can’t predict how things will turn out

When it comes to long term company predictions, they are more than likely to be incorrect. There have been numerous studies looking at companies and why only some of them survive. However, there is no clear prediction as to what works and what doesn’t. 

For example, an economist, Paul Omerod, developed a mathematical model of corporate evolution. Some companies in the model were given random strategies whilst others were given varying degrees of planners using the knowledge gained from other successful companies. The results showed that the survival of companies was not dependent on strategic planning. Similarly, when economic historian Leslie Hannah followed the world’s biggest organizations from 1912 onwards, it was found that most of the most successful companies simply vanished over time with only a few prospering over the decades. These studies proved that long term predictions cannot always be trusted as companies have no guarantee of surviving over time. 

Thus, if you never quite know whether a company is going to succeed or fail, you have to prepare yourself for inevitable failures. This does mean that your organization is destined to fail completely, it just means that you must build resilience in order to persevere despite failures.

Key lesson two: Trial and error is your best approach

We live in a world of complexity. There is no way that things can be done perfectly on the first try. Every action taken will have a different ripple effect. Whether it is in manufacturing a product or taking on a construction project, failures will occur. But it is through a series of failures that progress will occur. With each failure, people will adapt, make changes and try again. This is why trial and error is the best option you have. You have to test out different variations of your proposed design. 

In order to encourage thinking in this manner, two things have helped immensely. The first being patenting. It may seem strange but if you think about it, patents stimulate innovation by providing inventors control of the use of their idea. They have a chance to make a personal profit from their idea. The second is the rewarding of researchers with goal-orientated prizes. This encourages competition between experts and in turn, encourages thinking innovatively. They are rewarded when they achieve a pre-defined goal. In these circumstances, the funds for the prizes are provided by philanthropists looking for ways to succeed in a new market. 

For example, in 2004, $10 million was offered to the first group who could fly a private airplane into space. It was called the Ansari X Prize and 12 competitors participated, each funded by different organizations. The eventual winners were the group funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. The fact that this spaceflight was achieved in such a short time is evidence that prizes can spur research and innovation – much more than patents do. 

When trying to find solutions for any problem, you also have to consider how to proceed with your trials or experiments. For example, if you want to distinguish between apparent causes and actual ones, randomized trials are the best route. In randomized trials, each experimental group is provided with a different solution. For example, in Kenya, a Dutch charity wanted to test the effectiveness of textbooks in test scores. They hypothesized that textbooks would improve test scores. So, they delivered textbooks to a random selection of schools. The results, however, showed that the textbooks did not affect test scores as they thought they would. The charity then tried a different treatment. They provided medication for the schoolchildren to treat and prevent intestinal worms. No one expected that worms would have an effect on learning and test scores, but what did occur was the treatment reducing the number of sick days the kids had to take. Thus, they were able to attend school more often and improved their test scores as a result. 

Not all problems can be solved with randomized trials though. However, there are other ways to give you valuable information about a problem’s causes. These difficult problems with seemingly multiple causes are referred to as fundamentally unidentified questions or FUQs. With these, it is hard to identify single causes. They can also sometimes only be measured after it has caused the problem. A good example would be the part that carbon dioxide emissions play in climate change or measuring corruption. The latter was shown in an interesting experiment conducted in India amongst learner drivers. The learner drivers were given two options, they could either get their lesson subsidized or get a cash prize if they passed their driver’s test. After their initial driver’s test, they were surprised with a second test by the researchers conducting the experiment. The results showed that those who received the cash prize were more likely to pass their first test but less likely to pass the second. The reason why though was surprising. Those who chose the cash prize had bribed the examiners of their first test. This type of experiment works as an identification strategy in order to identify what caused the complex problem.

Lastly, when it comes to experiments and trials, they have to be carefully thought out to avoid loopholes in their specifications. Everyone wants to come up with a solution that actually makes a change like decreasing the use of fossil fuels in a bid to help the environment. However, the policies adopted caused more harm than good. Why? Well, let’s take a look at the UK, for example. In 2003, the council rules that mid or large scale development must have the ability to produce ten per cent of the building’s energy requirements. This sounds like a fair ruling, however, they did not specify that the building had to use this renewable energy. In addition, experiments would have shown that a wind turbine placed on a nearby hill would be more effective than one on the roof of the building but the ruling did not even consider this. The stipulated that the energy had to be produced on-site.

Another misconception that could have been easily demonstrated with an experiment is that buying locally produced is better than buying imports. Tomatoes grown in Britain require heated greenhouses which result in greater carbon dioxide emissions than those that are grown directly in the sunlight in Spain. Therefore, more market-based experiments can be more useful than just trying to implement untested changes. 

Key lesson three: What companies should do

Companies can greatly benefit by allowing their employees the autonomy to experiment. The development of a culture of experimentation within a company allows employees to innovate and think bigger. Employees tend to be afraid of criticism or fear their ideas being rejected in traditional work environments. The best example would be Google who allows their employees to use 20 per cent of their time to pursue a project that interests them. Even though 80 per cent of the ideas fail, 50 per cent of Google’s current products, like Gmail, were developed during this time. By allowing employees time and autonomy to come up with new ideas, it encourages an environment of trust and the free exchange of exciting ideas. There is no office politics or company hierarchy to hinder their innovations. 

Some companies like Whole Foods Market and Timpson take it a step further when it comes to autonomy. When Whole Foods considers a new employee, they give them a one month trial and then ask their staff members to vote whether the candidate gets hired or not. As long as two-thirds of them vote yes, the candidate is hired regardless of the manager’s vote. At Timpson, they have implemented something called peer monitoring whereby if an employee sees another employee making a mistake, they are allowed to rectify it immediately. This happens regardless of rank.

Key lesson four: Feedback is important

To understand the importance of feedback and critique, we must first look at how people react to failures. Firstly, failure can lead to denial. You can vehemently deny that you have done anything wrong or failed at all. It could all just be some misunderstanding. Secondly, we can hope our failure disappears by trying to throw more resources into it. Like a gambler making bigger bets trying to get back all the money they have lost. Lastly, we could perceive failure as success. You meant to write a play that was so profound that the way people critiqued it justified what you set out to do. 

This is where our family and friends come in. They can point out our mistakes and help us eliminate our own perceptions to see things as they really are. We are also able to move on from the failure with their encouragement and constructive criticism. 

The key takeaway from Adapt is:

The world we live in is complicated and the problems we face are often complicated too. We have to be open to trying new approaches to find the best solutions. It is all about trial and error. If something does not work out, do not be disheartened. Instead, you should aim to adapt and start thinking about the next possible solution. Resilience is key in our lives. It does not matter if it regards business or personal lives, find what works best for you by not being afraid to experiment.

How can I implement the lessons learned in Adapt:

Try to introduce a think tank in your organization. Anyone should be able to join. By including diverse members from the company, the entire group will be introduced to different viewpoints and perspectives. This allows collaboration and innovation whilst strengthening employee relationships. Think tanks can prove to be highly beneficial for any company. New ideas and solutions can be easily generated when employees are given a safe space to innovate. So, why not give it a try?

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