'Adapt': Failure As An Option On The Way To Success

Originally published on May 23, 2011 3:00 pm

In a complex world, the process of trial and error is essential. That's what Tim Harford — columnist for The Financial Times — writes in his new book Adapt. And while that idea might seem like common sense, it's one that is often remarkably hard for humans to accept because errors are associated with failure.

The subtitle of Harford's book is "Why Success Always Starts with Failure." For anyone familiar with Internet startups, that concept probably sounds pretty accurate; it seems every successful Internet CEO has a list of past missteps under his or her belt.

Harford tells NPR's Renee Montagne that businesses outside the Web world stand to benefit from Silicon Valley's fearlessness because, ultimately, it's through mistakes that great ideas come about.

"Failure is inevitable; it happens all the time in a complex economy," he says. "How did the economy produce all these amazing things that we have around us — computers and cellphones and so on? There were a bunch of ideas, and the good ones grew and prospered. And the bad ones were pretty ruthlessly weeded out."

Not 'Going On Tilt'

But if failure can bring such great things, it seems counterintuitive that most people find it so difficult to learn from mistakes. The way Harford explains that paradox is through a poker analogy.

"If you talk to a professional poker player, he or she will tell you that the most vulnerable time in a poker game is just after you've made a mistake," he says. "You do something called 'going on tilt.'" That's when, following an error, a player starts making reckless moves in a last-ditch effort to chase his money — to erase the mistake altogether.

That's not just something that happens in poker. Harford says that stock-market investors, for example, will engage in the same type of activity — chasing losses, doubling down — in hopes of being able to exit the game without having to admit to any errors. That, says Harford, is not good for business.

"If the whole process of learning from failure means discarding stuff that's not working, but in fact, our natural reaction is to keep going, to throw more money behind it, to throw more emotional energy behind it ... that's a real problem," he says.

But it's a problem that some companies are surpassing by embracing the concept of trial and error, he says. And their businesses are improving as a result.

One company that's paving the way when it comes to such experimentation is Whole Foods. The supermarket chain recently implemented an unconventional employee-empowerment program that lets employees choose co-workers to be on their team.

"If they think, 'This person's a slacker, or doesn't have good ideas,' they can vote and say, 'No, we don't want this person to be working with us on the vegetable aisle,'" Harford says. "That decentralization is a fascinating process, and I think it's getting more and more widespread."

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Good morning.

TIM HARFORD: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Now, the subtitle of your book is "Why Success Always Starts with Failure," and for people familiar with Internet startups, that sounds pretty right, actually. It seems like every successful internet CEO has a list of failures under his or her belt. But why is it so essential to Internet entrepreneurs, but not, perhaps, to the wider economy?

HARFORD: Yes. I wish everybody else learned a little bit more from Silicon Valley. The point I'm making is not by going through failure, it makes you a better person, and you learn essential things. Although, that might be true, my point's quite simple. Failure's inevitable. It happens all the time in a complex economy. And how did the economy produce all these amazing things that we have around us, computers and cell phones and so on? Well, the process was trial and error. There were a bunch of ideas, and the good ones grew and prospered, and the bad ones were pretty ruthlessly weeded out.

MONTAGNE: Give us an example of success that emerged after and actually even because of failure.

HARFORD: One of my favorite examples is Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the moveable type printing press we celebrate today. He, in some ways, created the modern world. A lot of people don't mention Gutenberg went bankrupt producing his most famous object, the Gutenberg Bible. It was - he developed the technology, and then he was wiped out.

MONTAGNE: In a sense, one does wonder why learning from mistakes is so hard. Are people overwhelmed by failure?

HARFORD: It's been discovered, for instance, in the behavior of stock market investors. They will also chase losses and double-down in the hope of being able to get out of the game having won everything back and they didn't have to admit that they were losers. And that's a real problem, because if the whole process of learning from failure means discarding stuff that's not working, but, in fact, our natural reaction is to keep going, to throw more money behind it, to throw more emotional energy behind it, because if we keep pushing, maybe somehow this bad idea will turn into a good idea. I mean, that's the challenge that we face.

MONTAGNE: Let's talk about a huge failure that's touched virtually everyone: the financial crisis. Bankers bought complex financial derivatives aimed at reducing the risk of losing money. In fact, all these fancy risk-reducing products created an even bigger disaster. Have we learned from that financial crisis?

HARFORD: What I've learned and drawn from the financial crisis - and I feel the regulators need to learn this lesson - there were certain systems where you need to have a very low tolerance for mistakes. A nuclear power station is an example. An oil rig is another example. We can learn a lot from the people who understand how industrial safety works, and it is all about catching those failures when they're small and isolating the failures. And I don't think regulators have really got that point yet.

MONTAGNE: What is an example of a company that has embraced failure, the concept of trial and error, and then been successful?

HARFORD: The supermarket chain Whole Foods has quite a radical employee empowerment program, where employees get to decide whether another employee can work in their team or not. If they think this person's a slacker, doesn't have good ideas, they can vote and say, no, we don't want this person to be working with us on the vegetable aisle. And so that decentralization is a fascinating process. I think it's getting more and more widespread.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for talking with us.

HARFORD: Thank you. It's been great.

MONTAGNE: Tim Harford writes the "Undercover Economist" column for The Financial Times. His new book is called "Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.