Thursday, June 02, 2011

Adapt (Why Success Always Starts With Failure) by Tim Harford: A Review

By John Cheeran
Tim Harford, the undercover economist, has come up with another book of brilliance – Adapt (Why Success Always Starts With Failure). Harford is a renowned economist and a journalist with Financial Times and while his revelation about the importance of adapting in social and corporate life is hardly original his reasoning is quite praiseworthy.
Without Harford telling it, I have always believed that dissent has a role in life and in decision making. Harford gently connects dissent with adaptation, which is, in fact, nothing but Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory of the survival of the fittest in a given environment. What, however, Harford does not say is this. Fear is the greatest impediment to success. Slay the dragon of fear and humans can achieve extra-ordinary feats, which you can also label as success.
Overcoming the fear of failure takes effort and Harford’s argument of adapt and prosper is valid but hardly new.
Harford presents arresting case studies of decision making in government and corporate sector where top-down hierarchy leaves little room for honest feedback or dissent.
Harford points to HR McMaster’s acclaimed book Dereliction of Duty which argues that the US government and President Lyndon B Johnson bungled up the Vietnam war effort because the US establishment refused to adapt and revise their strategy. Adapt observes “Johnson, an insecure man with the presidency thrust upon him by John F Kennedy’s murder was eager for reassurance and disliked debate. His defence secretary Robert McNamara was the quintessential yes-man, soothing Johnson at every step and ruthlessly enforcing the president’s request to hear a single voice.” McMaster has pointed out in his Dereliction of Duty why alternative perspective is important in decision making. Dereliction of Duty is a definitive account of how an organization can fail from top down.
Harford, in Adapt, says forty years later, nothing has changed in the US military establishment pointing out defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s refusal to listen to dissenting advice, dooming the allied forces in Iraq.
Harford rightly observes that no leader can make the right decision every time. Napoleon, perhaps the finest general in history, invaded Russia with half a million men and lost over 90 per cent of them to death and desertion. Mao Zedong was the greatest of all insurgent commanders but a catastrophic peacetime leader whose blundering arrogance killed tens of millions of his own people.
Harford writes: “We need whistleblowers in our own lives to warn us about the latent errors that we have made and which are just waiting to catch us out. In short, we all need a critic, and for most of us the inner critic is not frankly enough. We need someone who can help us hold those two jostling thoughts at the same time: I’m not a failure – but I have made a mistake.”
He adds:” To embrace the idea of adapting in everyday life seems to be to accept blundering into a process of unremitting failure.”
Harford quotes a Prussian general who once put it, ‘No plan survives first contact with the enemy,’ and says what matters is how quickly the leader is able to adapt.
And if you are able to adapt, you may be the next leader.

Title: Adapt (Why Success Always Starts With Failure)
Author: Tim Harford
Publisher: Little, Brown and Hachette India
Price: Rs499
Pages: 311

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