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ON THE SHELFTry, Try Again

Stories of people whose determination made a difference

ADAPT: Why Success Always Starts With Failure
by Tim Harford. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 309 pps.

The idea that failure and adaptation can lead to success is nothing new for engineers, most of whom continuously experiment in their studies and work. Economic journalist Tim Harford celebrates this approach, stressing its importance for society, industry, and individuals. Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure is animated with stories of people who have made a difference through their dogged pursuits. They include Reginald Mitchell, designer of the WWII Spitfire fighter plane; engineer Dave Myers, who applied the Gore-Tex polymer for use on guitar strings; and, of course, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who set a historic example of persistence and now encourage their Google employees to spend as much as 20 percent of the work week exploring possible future projects.

Yet while trial and error may seem both intuitive and logical, it “runs counter to our instincts,” says Harford. Most people, fearing the possibility of failure, stick to the safety of the status quo, and by doing so limit the possibilities of what can be achieved. Harford’s book underscores just why experimentation is so important and how it might help tackle such pressing issues as poverty, climate change, and economic instability.

It is a Soviet, Peter Palchinsky, who serves as a guiding model in Adapt, someone who “[refused] to shut up when he saw a problem.” Eager to contribute to the technological development of Stalin’s Soviet Union, this early 20th-century engineer repeatedly warned against massive, overly ambitious projects driven by political concerns. For his efforts, Palchinsky was ignored, exiled, and eventually executed. Here, he is resurrected by Harford and hailed for his determination to tackle complex problems with attention to the human and local scale. The three “Palchinsky Principles” that resound throughout the pages of this text are, first, to seek out new ideas and approaches – “variation”; second, to do so on a survivable scale – “selection”; and third, to solicit feedback and learn from mistakes – “adaptation.”

These principles are applied to a variety of diverse issues. Harford considers, for example, how randomized, small-scale experiments could strengthen overseas development programs, separating failures from more promising endeavors. Elsewhere, addressing the question of climate change, he argues that a carbon tax could quickly reveal the true energy costs of products and be far more effective than reusing plastic bags or buying locally. Woven throughout the narrative are engaging case studies of committed adapters, such as Col. (now Brig. Gen.) H.R. McMaster, whose on-the-ground experiments in Iraq sought ways to win over the local population. McMaster often bucked official policy and antagonized superior officers, but his techniques ultimately proved successful, significantly lowering insurgent attacks. Choreographer Twyla Tharp is noted for her ability to put aside ego and self-pity, transforming an initial badly panned musical into an award-winning Broadway hit, Movin’ Out. For Harford, both McMaster and Tharp are exemplars of discerning variation, selection, and adaptation.

As an economic columnist for the London Financial Times, Harford is particularly intrigued by the complexity of financial systems, drawing a compelling comparison between fiscal meltdowns and industrial catastrophes. Banks and oil rigs or nuclear reactors represent highly involved systems whose possible malfunction accommodates very little margin for “safe failure.” We need to admit the inevitability of accidents, Harford argues, and then construct multiple lines of defense, as well as loosening the interdependency within such systems. Doing so would help prevent a single failure from compounding into the kinds of cataclysms we witnessed in the 2007 AIG collapse and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion.

Throughout the wide-ranging examinations of this book, Harford highlights the value of experimentation and the necessity of being willing to try, try again – with discernment, care, and a strong commitment to fail and then start again. Engineering educators should find within these pages instructive anecdotes to inspire their students – as well as themselves.

Robin Tatu is a contributing editor of Prism.




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