Why Success Always Starts with Failure
Format: Hardcover, 320 pages
Publisher: Bond Street Books
ISBN: 978-0-385-67024-1 (0-385-67024-9)
Pub Date: May 10, 2011
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The Undercover Economist - famed for his explanations - now offers solutions.
Tim Harford introduces a new way of thinking about how to solve the world's most urgent problems, from climate change to terrorism, African poverty to global finance - even the problems we encounter in our own daily lives. When faced with such challenges, we instinctively look to leaders, experts, and gurus to provide us with pre-chewed solutions. Harford argues that the world has become too unpredictable and complex for that. Instead, we must adapt - improvise rather than plan, work from the bottom up, take baby steps.
Adapt draws on exciting new work by passionate young economists and on innovative ideas from across the sciences. It looks at how and why innovation really comes about, extolling the value of trial and error and arguing that we should learn to embrace failure. Above all, Adapt applies hard-won lessons learned in the field, from a spaceport in the Mojave Desert to the street of Iraq, from a blazing offshore drilling rig to the frozen tundra of Siberia. The book shows that it's up to individuals - us - to change the world.
Consider the PlayPump, a clever-sounding idea in which a deep well is connected to a pump powered by a children’s roundabout as a way of bringing fresh water to isolated communities. As the children play, the roundabout spins, and the pump fills a large tank that can be tapped as needed. The PlayPump removes the need both for unreliable electrical pumps and for hours of labour from hardworking women: clean water simply appears as a by-product of innocent play.
Or does it? Because it’s a pricey and mechanically inefficient alternative to a hand-pump, the PlayPump justifies itself only if the village children really do spend much of their time playing on it. From the pictures sent back from rural Africa, it seems that they do. But rural Africa is a place where few of us spend much time, so it’s hard to be sure. Owen Scott, a young Canadian engineer, does spend his time in rural Africa. He lives in Malawi and works for Engineers Without Borders, so he can easily see what really happens when a PlayPump is installed: “Each time I’ve visited a PlayPump, I’ve always found the same scene: a group of women and children struggling to spin it by hand so they can draw water. I’ve never found anyone playing on it” he explains. But then comes the Kodak moment: “As soon as the foreigner with a camera comes out . . . kids get excited. And when they get excited, they start playing. Within five minutes, the thing looks like a crazy success.”
Sometimes the PlayPump replaces a traditional hand-pump. Scott compared how long it took to fill a 20-litre bucket with a traditional hand-pump (28 seconds) versus a PlayPump (3 minutes 7 seconds of strenuous and faintly humiliating running around). Scott also asked the locals, in sparsely populated Malawian villages, whether they preferred the new PlayPumps or their old, traditional hand-pumps. They were unambiguous: the hand-pumps did the job much better.
The trouble is, not everyone is as inquisitive as Owen Scott. And those photos the foreigners take after five minutes do look convincing, not to mention heart-warming. Soon the PlayPumps won a prestigious award from the World Bank. They were swiftly backed by the US aid agencies USAID and PEPFAR, private foundations, the then-President’s wife Laura Bush and the rap entrepreneur Jay-Z.
Owen Scott is up against quite a set of cheerleaders, but has managed to make an impact by posting video interviews with Malawian teachers on YouTube – “the message is stop immediately . . . play pumps are causing problems for Malawi”.
One of the funders of PlayPumps, the Case Foundation, now says it’s discovered that the pumps “perform best in certain community settings, such as at large primary schools, but they are not necessarily the right solution for other communities” and is looking at other approaches – an excellent example of adapting to failures.
“The Undercover Economist’s latest, winning theory is that making mistakes helps people to succeed. . . . This is an excellent book. . . . utterly compelling.”
—The Sunday Times (UK)
“Intelligent exploration that draws thoughtful conclusions on highly complex world events. . . . [Harford’s] claims might not be as decisive as his American contemporaries—also riding the wave of popular economics—but they are more robust and as a consequence more significant.”
—City A.M. (UK)
“A novel approach to problem-solving.”
“Terrific new book. . . . Harford is a gifted writer whose prose courses swiftly and pleasurably. He has assembled a powerful combination of anecdotes and data to make a serious point: companies, governments and people must recognise the limits of their wisdom and embrace the muddling of mankind.”
“[A] wealth of fascinating case studies.”
—The New York Times (The 6th Floor)
“Persuasive new book. . . . [Harford] knows how to deal with complicated subjects in lay terms, gracefully holding a line of accessible elucidation without veering into patronising oversimplification. . . . Harford’s invitation to a fireside chat in No 10, if not issued already, cannot be far off.”
—the Guardian (UK)
“Harford’s case histories are well chosen and artfully told, making the book a delight to read. But its value is greater than that. Strand by strand, it weaves the stories into a philosophical web that is neat, fascinating and brilliant. Like the best popular science, it advances the subject as well as conveying it, drawing intriguing conclusions about how to run companies, armies and research labs. . . . It would be hard to improve Harford’s outstanding book.”
“A very good read. . . . open, clear and persuasive.”
—Management Today (UK)
“Conjures inspiring visions of redemption from the wreckage of failure. . . . an interesting guide for determined and open-minded entrepreneurs.”
—Mortgage Strategy (UK)
2. Conflict or: How organisations learn
3. Creating new ideas that matter or: Variation
4. Finding what works for the poor or: Selection
5. Five Climate change or: Changing the rules for success
6. Preventing financial meltdowns or: Decoupling
7. The adaptive organisation
8. Adapting and you
TIM HARFORD is the author of the bestseller The Undercover Economist, The Logic of Life and Dear Undercover Economist. He is a member of the editorial board of the Financial Times and a regular contributor to Slate, Forbes, and NPR's Marketplace. He was the host of the BBC TV series Trust Me, I'm an Economist and now presents the BBC series More or Less. Harford has been an economist at the World Bank and an economics tutor at Oxford University. He lives in London with his wife and two daughters.
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