Adapt Summary By Tim Harford

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Adapt by Tim Harford is a thought-provoking book that teaches readers how to be adaptive and resilient in a complex and unpredictable world.

It offers an insightful take on how to make better decisions, think more creatively and respond quickly to changing environments.

This book promotes the idea of trial and error as an effective way of learning and growing, rather than relying solely on traditional management techniques.

The author digs into why failure should be embraced as part of the learning process, as well as how success can all too often be framed as something that already exists -- making real adaptation difficult.

Adapt provides strategies for positively navigating even the most difficult of times with ultimate resilience, which makes it an invaluable read for anyone wanting to come out ahead in today's rapidly evolving world.


Book Name: Adapt (Why Success Always Starts with Failure)

Author(s): Tim Harford

Rating: 4.2/5

Reading Time: 16 Minutes

Categories: Management & Leadership

Author Bio

The author of the book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure is Tim Harford, a renowned journalist, broadcaster and economist.

We may recognize his work from the BBC Radio 4 program More or Less where he helps to explain the statistical stories behind big news events.

As a testament to his exceptional writing skills, Harford was even awarded the Bastiat Prize for Journalism in 2006.

A highly respected figure both in and outside of the media world; there is no doubt that Tim Harford is an influential voice when it comes to understanding success and failure in our modern age.

How to Become Resilient and Find Creative Solutions: A Review of Tim Harford’s Adapt

Tim Harford's

Adapt by Tim Harford is an eye-opening read that shows why the most effective way to solve any problem is not by planning, but by experimenting.

This approach allows us to make ourselves resilient to failure – by allowing ourselves to fail!

Harford’s book dives into a great many ways so that we can learn how to make resilient against costly failures.

You’ll read about why rules designed with great intentions may do exactly the opposite of what was intended; for example, regulations on reducing fossil fuel use accidentally caused it to increase instead.

You’ll also find out why Winston Churchill’s plan for Spitfire didn’t work correctly and how one company allows existing employees to choose the new hires based on their insights.

Harford encourages readers to become comfortable with failing, as well as pick themselves up after making mistakes in order to become more successful in their endeavors.

Why Company Survival Rate Resembles Biological Organisms’ Extinction Rate and What We Can Do to Be Resilient

It’s almost certain that many predictions will be wrong.

Utilizing studies done on both biological organisms and companies, it has been determined that the survival rate in both scenarios is very similar: most do not survive in the long run.

Paul Ormerod’s mathematical model used to measure corporate evolution showed there to be no overlap between what was observed and the extinction rate of companies.

Similarly, Leslie Hannah’s study demonstrated how even though some of the tracked companies did well over a time period of decades, many more vanished.

This idea was even present in Philip Tetlock’s survey of 300 experts, who gave predictions on a variety of future events.

Despite having PhDs or being diplomats, political scientists or economists, their forecasts were rarely right – especially when it came to Russia’s transformation from Cold War till Soviet Union collapse.

From these analyses, it is evident that predicting success or failure for any endeavor must be taken with much caution and doubt; this why learning resilience despite inevitable failures is becoming increasingly important if success is desired over time.

How Top-Down Organizations Make Mistakes and How Local Knowledge Can Help Avoid Them


It may seem logical for organizations to have a top-down, centralized approach, but this often comes with the assumption that they have total control.

This is an illusion – as seen in the second Gulf War during the Iraq conflict – where military opinions acquired on the ground had no influence on government policy.

Despite Colonel McMaster’s attempt to emphasize cooperation between citizens and troops, the politicians failed to consider dissenting views that could have resulted in a much more successful outcome.

The top-down decision-making model silences expert opinions which would give organizations the chance to learn from any mistakes made.

It works by creating a high-level view compiled from all available information combined with an absolute chain of command and a unified team sharing a unanimous vision.

However it doesn’t take into account the complexity of stakeholders or other situations that could easily change within any given organization.

Organizations should always keep this in mind when making decisions from up high.

An illusion of total control can easily lead to costly mistakes if not counteracted by considering input from those closest to who/what is being impacted.

Ultimately, taking all perspectives into account is key for any successful organization, no matter how many layers or degrees of separation there are between them and their end goal.

The Need for Adaptation to Succeed in a Complex World

If you want to be successful in today’s world, you must be prepared to experiment and accept that things don’t always go according to plan.

The complexities of the world mean that many ventures will require a trial-and-error approach.

Take the example of the postgraduate student who attempted to build a toaster from scratch.

He initially thought it would be an easy task, only to find out how complicated sourcing materials for it actually is.

When he was eventually able to complete the project, not only had it taken longer and been more difficult than he foresaw, but his “home-made” device was also a health hazard!

Similar problems are seen in large-scale engineering projects.

Peter Palchinsky warned of lack of potential for adaptation when Stalin wanted to rush his Lenin Dam project ahead regardless.

But, Palchinsky overlooked the fact and rushed forward with it anyway– which ultimately resulted in its failure both economically and as a feat of engineering.

Encouraging Innovation Through Goals-Based Prizes and Patents

Goals-Based Prizes

Experimenting often produces many failures, but on rare occasions, it can lead to radical breakthroughs.

This was the case with the Spitfire—a fighter plane designed for the British Air Ministry in the 1930s.

Initially, it was met with skepticism, and even Winston Churchill thought it was an interesting experiment at best.

However, after rigorous experimenting and testing by its designers, this aircraft proved its worth when it managed to foil the Nazi invasion of Britain; demonstrating that great things can come from taking risks and conducting experiments.

This example serves as a reminder that experimentation is essential for progress – especially when tackling complex problems or revolutionary projects – even if failure accompanies most experiments.

As such, by encouraging experimentation through issuing patents or offering research prizes to those who push themselves to innovate, we open ourselves up to not only possible catastrophic failures but also amazing new possibilities.

The Complexity of Risk: Striking a Balance Between Safety and Innovation

In a complex world, failure is inevitable and innovation is often borne from that.

However, if our failures aren’t survivable, then we won’t be able to progress.

This is why it’s so important to create systems that allow us to take risks while still having the necessary safeguards in place to protect ourselves if our attempts fail.

For example, an effective way of improving the safety of financial systems would be to establish sound contingency plans in case businesses become insolvent.

Regulators could also stipulate that banks with complex operations must keep a large amount of capital on reserve as a contingency cushion.

Splitting off certain parts of banking – such as trade derivatives – into separate companies might also help reduce risk, although this overlooks the fact that venture capital often provides funding for innovative start-ups.

In short, innovation is only possible when our failures are survivable.

We need systems in place that balance risk and reward so that we can have room to make mistakes without putting ourselves in serious danger.

That way we can ensure both our safety and the growth of creative endeavours over the long term.

Distinguishing Actual Causes from Ostensible Ones: How Randomized Trials and Identification Strategies Help Us Solve FUQs


Randomized trials are a great way to effectively ascertain the source of any given problem.

When it comes to foreign development aid, for example, testing can be done in the form of providing randomly selected schools with textbooks, and then comparing the test scores between those schools and those that didn’t receive textbooks.

Quite often, such randomized trials can yield unexpected findings; The results from one Dutch charity’s experiment identified intestinal worms as a problem leading to students’ absences and poorer academic performance rather than textbooks being the main cause.

For problems which cannot be solved by randomization—known as fundamentally unidentified questions (FUQs)—there are alternative methods of extracting useful insights about causative factors.

For example, an experiment concerning learner drivers in India found that those who had been promised cash successes their tests were more likely to have passed their initial test but less likely to perform well on second independent tests due to bribery.

Such experimentation is indeed an identification strategy: It allows us to discover causes of FUQs that are otherwise undetectable or impossible to measure until after they have been addressed.

Ultimately, disinterested testing allows us to distinguish what works from what doesn’t when it comes to certain problems.

This applies even with complex and seemingly “intractable” issues where it can be almost impossible at first glance to determine which solution is better than the other(s).

Not only does this help us understand how best we can use our resources; It also makes problem-solving so much easier!

We Must Be Careful Not to Accidentally Harm the Environment with Poor Initiatives and Instead Use Carbon Taxes to Reduce Carbon Emissions

More market-based experiments are required in order to address the environmental issues that plague us today.

Social policies must not be so rigid or designed with loopholes, as this can lead to unintended consequences.

For example, take the case of a UK council’s ruling in 2003 that all mid- to large-scale buildings must be able to produce at least 10% of their energy on site – without stipulating this power have to be used.

We can clearly see how this would create an issue, specially since it requires construction of bigger turbines on cramped sites.

Similarly, US regulations introduced in 1975 aimed at boosting fuel efficiency were efficient with less regulations for light trucks – resulting in creating vehicles like SUVs which actually decline fuel efficiency levels between 1988 and 2003.

One better experiment could be having a carbon tax levied on every ton of carbon emitted by fossil fuels, as this would alter the current market price and encourage people to choose renewable sources while driving/using less electricity.

It’s also very important that we understand what might seem environmentally friendly is not always so when we delve deeper into it; buying locally grown produce for example results in greater emissions due to heated greenhouses than Spanish imports (taking into account transportation).

Ultimately social policies must avoid inflexibility and seek out more effective market-based experiments like carbon taxes if we are serious about reducing our emissions and help save our planet.

Safe Havens: Enhancing Innovation by Providing Autonomy and Cultures of Experimentation


Companies that grant their employees autonomy have been shown to find new and innovative ways to survive or even thrive in tough times.

Take the example of Lockheed’s “Skunk Works” division, which developed the U2 plane, the Blackbird, and RADAR-immune stealth planes.

They were all created within a safe haven that sheltered staff from company politics, allowing them to experiment and pursue unconventional ideas without fear of censure.

A more recent success story is Google, which gives its engineers 20 percent of their contracted time to work on whatever project they choose.

Although 80 percent of these projects have failed – like Google Wave – 50 percent still remain and contribute massively to the company’s success – for example, Gmail and Adsense.

Other companies have taken this system a step further; Whole Foods Market and Timpson have gone so far as to introduce employee autonomy policies that put power into their employees’ hands through giving potential hires a four-week trial period before they are voted in by fellow staff members or providing opportunities for peer monitoring, where everyone is responsible for each other’s actions regardless of rank – even offering a discretionary allowance of £500 to unhappy customers!

It’s clear that when companies embrace these kinds of unorthodox methods and grant employees autonomy, it can help them find innovative ways survive or even thrive in challenging times.

No Matter How Big the Failure, There Is Always a Way Back Up with the Help of a Validation Squad

We all have a tendency to deny our failures, or are tempted to try and recover losses in an irrational way.

Sometimes, we also fool ourselves by seeing our failures as successes instead.

But if we’re able to cultivate a support system of close friends and family who can offer constructive criticism to us, then we can distinguish our mistakes from our self-worth and move on from failure.

This is exactly what happened with Twyla Tharp’s critically panned musical, Movin’ Out.

With the support of her validation squad, she was able to identify the valid criticisms and focus on them in order to make changes that made the Broadway run of Movin’ Out an award-winning success.

It’s proof that while failure may seem daunting, with friendly fair critique – anything is possible!

Wrap Up

The main takeaway from Adapt: Exploit Parallelism to Increase Your Chances of Success is that we cannot predict or plan for the future with complete certainty.

We must be willing to try out multiple options in short bursts of time in order to maximize our chances of success.

To do this, it is suggested that people join different clubs or meet-ups so they have access to a variety of networks and resources.

By joining lots of different activities, we are more likely to stumble upon unexpected opportunities and learn valuable skills along the way.

Ultimately, when it comes to success, it pays to be open minded, take risks and keep trying different things until something eventually works out for you.

Arturo Miller

Hi, I am Arturo Miller, the Chief Editor of this blog. I'm a passionate reader, learner and blogger. Motivated by the desire to help others reach their fullest potential, I draw from my own experiences and insights to curate blogs.

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