Adapt - why success always starts with failure

is an excellent book by Tim Harford (isbn 978-0-349-12151-2). As usual I'm going to quote from a few pages:
Cross the river by feeling for stones [Deng Xiaoping]
Accepting trial and error means accepting error.
Darwin, a meticulous observer...
The art of success is to fail productively.
Complexity is a problem only in tightly coupled systems.
Make sure you know when you've failed, or you will never learn.
What Palchinsky realised was that most real-world problems are more complex than we think. They have a human dimension, a local dimension, and are likely to change as circumstances change. His method for dealing with this could be summarised as three 'Palchinsky principles'
  • seek out new ideas and try new things
  • when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable
  • seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along
If we are to take the 'variation' part of 'variation and selection' seriously, uniformly high standards are not only impossible but undesirable.
When John Nagl served in Baghdad in 2003, he found that while his young inexperienced soldiers had the authority to kill, he - a major with a doctorate and a decade of experience - didn't have the authority to print his own propaganda pamphlets to counteract the clever PR campaign that the local insurgents were running.
Speciation - the divergence of one species into two separate populations - rarely happens without some form of physical separation.
Tight coupling means the unintended consequences proliferate so quickly that it is impossible to adapt to the failure or to try something different.
The first thing Timpson does when it buys another business is to rip out the electronic point-of-sale machines (there are always EPOS machines) and replace them with old fashioned cash registers. 'EPOS lets people at head office run the business', explains John Timpson. 'I don't want them to run the business.'

John Timpson describes one instance where he couldn't buy half-price happy hour drinks at a hotel bar, because midway through giving his order, the hour ended and the bar's computerised sales system refused to allow the half-price offer to be applied.

Timpson's company training manual describes the twenty easiest ways to defraud the company, making it clear that the company understands the risks it is running and trusts its employees anyway - and many people respond to being trusted by becoming more trustworthy.
A central point of the corporation, as a legal structure, is that it is supposed to be a safe space in which to fail. Limited liability companies were developed to encourage people to experiment, to innovate, to adapt - safe in the knowledge that if their venture collapsed, it would merely be the abstract legal entity that was ruined, not them personally.
Fail better. [Samuel Beckett]

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