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Surviving Failure

Oscar Foulkes July 24, 2011 Books No comments

I am willing to wager a substantial amount of money that the majority of people in the world have a problematical relationship with failure. Against a backdrop of empirical measurement of our academic ability – especially a method that delivers a pass/fail result – and a general culture that makes it uncomfortable even for sub-optimal achievement, failure is not a condition we can be expected to embrace. We don’t like it, plain and simple. We avoid failure as if it were the plague.

Tim Harford, in his excellent book Adapt, isn’t exactly suggesting that we should seek out failure. Instead he says that experimentation is a necessary part of the evolution and success of organisations (and organisms). Failure is an inevitable consequence of experimentation, so we’ll all be better off if we have a sustainable way of dealing with it.

This matter-of-fact attitude to failure is quite reassuring, actually. It’s a relief to know that one can try something out, that it may not work out, but that’s OK. In fact, it’s normal.

The one part of this book with which I’m not in agreement is the choice of sub-title, “why success always starts with failure”, which strikes me as being intended to shock potential readers into a purchase. It’s not really what the book is about.

It’s not as if Adapt doesn’t describe failures; there are dozens of them, from the collapse of the Soviet Union’s economy to oil spills, Broadway musicals, and yes, the credit crisis. Harford relates the background to many of these failures in a most interesting and readable manner.

While he describes failure as natural, and certainly not a phenomenon that requires any feelings of shame, there are some provisos.

The first one is that failure should not lead to the extinction of the organisation or organism. In other words, the extent of the failure should be survivable.

The second critical component of failure is knowing that you’ve failed. Chasing your losses only makes it worse. So, it becomes critically important to have effective feedback loops. In the command economy of the Soviet Union any dissenting feedback generally resulted in the messenger getting shot. Donald Rumsfeld’s poor management of the war in Iraq was compounded by him shutting out feedback that didn’t accord with his position.

It’s only in the final chapter that Harford gets on to the personal dimension of failure. Up until that point he colours his message with a number of fascinating examples that he keeps at a reassuring distance. However, it was quite early in the book that I started thinking about my own failures.

My biggest failures have not obeyed the first rule of manageability. While there may not have been anything wrong with the experimentation, I committed myself on a scale that made survival almost impossible if it didn’t work out right.

Another example he uses, is of those huge domino set-ups, where disturbing one will lead to all of them getting knocked over. It’s a great spectacle if they start tipping at the correct time, but a disaster if it’s premature. It is for this reason that the builders of these arrangements employ safety gates. This example he likens to the contagion that accompanied the credit crisis. One failure led to a whole bunch of others.

These examples offer just a small glimpse; there are many more.

Adapt is going to go onto my list of the most important books I’ve read. It doesn’t set out to be a self-help book, but for a perpetual experimenter like myself it’s a really important reference.

Where failure is concerned, the only failure is to omit it from the possible outcomes. And not to allow new information to change your course of action.

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