@TimHarford on the need to embrace failure

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I've just returned from hearing Tim Harford speak on his new book Adapt: Why success always starts with failure. (You can read a recap of his talk at Nesta by reading the #nestaharford twitter stream).

His essential message is that we need to embrace failure if we want to succeed in an increasingly complex world. No single person can come up with the solutions to the problems we face. Rather decentralisation of the global economy makes buying a three quid toaster from Argos possible (you really need to read the book to understand why the toaster is so important, yet so evil).

Back to Harford, who says out with "leaders with grand visions; experts with a detailed plan of action and gurus eith an infallible solution" and in with "improvisation, working from the bottom up, and taking baby steps rather than great leaps forward".

In fact, these last three form the core principles for successful failure:

  1. Embrace variety - no one has the answer and experimentation and trail and error can help with the process of selection.
  2. Take small steps - don't let any single failure wipe you out.
  3. Be able to recognise difference between success and failure - it's not easy, but not everybody can admit when they get it wrong.

For Harford, these three principles can be summed up by the difference between Silicon Valley and Wall Street: one says they love to fail fast; the other believes they're too big to fail. One fosters innovation and growth; the other invested in innovation that damaged growth.

His talk did raise questions about the UK's ability to innovate. He says that you can't innovate without tolerating differences, something which the 'post-code lottery' crowd won't tolerate.

He also says that the first principle - embracing variety and experimentation - doesn't sit well with UK voters (or Stalin, for that matter. Again, read the book), who prefer certainty. It's why Thatcher and Blair were won three elections.

But his talk also raised two other problems for the UK.

Firstly, we have a culture that doesn't like to admit we don't know the answer, and therefore we'll never get to the point were we realise we need to experiment.

Secondly, we have a society that is ashamed of failure and views it as unambiguously a bad thing.

That's where Harford's second principle - learning to love small failures - could make a difference. That and some hubris on the part of politicians and patience on the part of the media.

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