Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Success is not Dependent on Failure

The Bookshop Guru

A book review of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford

I started reading this book because I was intrigued by the title and the subject matter. The first two chapters were good and well written, but after that I felt the book lost touch with the initial premise. This is because not all success starts with failure. The basic premise of the book is that complex systems of organisations are too centralised and use inflexible doctrine to run their organisations. These organisations have little or no experimentation or trial and error policies, and so they lack the adaptability needed for today’s fast changing economic landscape to succeed in the long run.

Many examples are used to illustrate the point Harford is trying to make. But that is easy to do – find examples where success came from failure. But that doesn’t prove the point Harford is making, that is just coincidence and to some extent luck. Consider the example of Google versus Microsoft. Harford tells us that Google became a dominant company because of how they are willing to experiment and allow their employees the freedom to develop new ideas. Nothing new here many companies including Microsoft develop and test new products all the time and will have failures. In fact even Harford acknowledges that Google’s success with tailored search engine adverts was by chance and not by design. Harford says Google’s engineers did not set out to design optimised advertising they happened upon it by chance.

History tells us that many great innovations have come from luck and chance. So without luck and chance on your side even with experimentation and failure is no guarantee for success. So it’s a false premise to say success always starts with failure.

Another example touted was how the top-down approach used by previous leaders in the wake of the Iraq war that initially failed led to success because a few inspired commanders responded to ground conditions and adapted their policy to suit. I am not sure how this example shows that success always starts with failure. In my opinion its human nature to under estimate and be over optimistic on complex events and that success is subjective and only time will tell if this true.

Harford also uses the banking crisis of 2007/8 to tell his readers why success comes from failure. I personally do not see the correlation between bank failure and success. Everyone knows that the crisis was largely caused by greed and ignorance and not because the banks failed to adapt or were too centralised as organisations. In fact the banks failed and the only reason why some of them exist today is because taxpayer’s money bailed them out – that is not a success.

Overall an entertaining read but I do not agree with the evidence Harford presented that success always starts with failure.

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