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Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011, 309 pp.

In Adapt, Tim Harford argues that the three essential steps to successful innovation and adaptation are “to try new things, in the expectation that some will fail; to make failure survivable, because it is common; and to make sure that you know when you’ve failed.” At first blush this statement seems like a blinding lightening bolt of the obvious. However, Harford’s book provides an exposé of modern day complexity and how good ideas are often strangled in their crib by bureaucracies that are threatened by any new thinking which challenges the status quo. In making his point about adaption, he examines some of the world’s most daunting problems: counterinsurgency, climate change, financial crisis, and global poverty.

Harford is an economist by education and specialization. His book The Undercover Economist was part of the new wave of economics and idea books that broke ground by making statistical analysis more accessible to the masses and challenged readers to conceptualize problems differently. Books like Blink and Freakonomics fit this trendy genre. He attempts to break complex subjects into digestible and logical time lines to lay bare the mistakes of key leaders and corporate cultures.

Adapt is a fun read. Harford is a great storyteller. However, the inherent political nature of topics like climate change and global poverty may leave the reader doubting the applicability of his case studies to other problem sets. The author is on more sure ground when he tackles topics where his economics background lends more credence. His discussion of Darwinian selection, evolution (i.e., adaption), and experimentation is thought-provoking. His comparison of financial bankruptcies to extinction modeling is interesting. While discussing military themes, Harford does hit on a piece of military history worth recounting for those interested in airpower—the story of the Spitfire fighter plane of World War II lore. He concludes that victory in the Battle of Britain with the Spitfire was due to a culture of creativity and risk-taking by a small group of aircraft and propulsion engineers financed by an eccentric, risk-taking millionaire. The key was an organizational culture that encouraged and rewarded forward thinking at the risk of failure.

However, if you are a reader who is familiar with the Iraq campaign and the implementation of the counterinsurgency strategy, Harford’s narrative on Iraq will leave you dissatisfied. His opening salvo delving into the topic of adaptability and failure is a case study on the US military and its many mistakes in Iraq. He begins with a play-by-play of the Marine Corps’ Haditha incident in which 24 Iraqi civilians were killed in November 2005, a horrific scene eerily reminiscent of the March 2012 report of a rogue soldier killing 17 civilians in Afghanistan. To illustrate his point about bureaucratic leaders, he focuses the spotlight on former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld and provides the narrative that Rumsfeld’s watch was marred by poor assumptions, micromanagement, an inability to admit error, and, ultimately, a failure to adapt.

His examination of Rumsfeld is akin to a piñata that has been knocked down and trampled: the party is over and the candy is all gone. This is ground that has been covered and recovered by so many authors that it offers little new to the military reader. To read Tim Harford’s assessment of Iraq is to provide a Cliffs Notes version of Thomas Ricks’ Fiasco and The Gamble, sprinkled with narration from Greg Jaffe’s The Fourth Star. His examination of the Vietnam War opens no new insights into Pres. Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, or the military writ large. His depiction of Vietnam appears to be an abbreviated version of H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty but misses the point that Vietnam under Johnson was not simply a story about a failure to adapt but, as McMaster succinctly puts it in his closing argument, a story of “arrogance, weakness, lying in the pursuit of self-interest, and, above all, the abdication of responsibility to the American people.”

A fundamental question for the military reader is how does one create a learning organization—one that encourages experimentation and failure and promotes those that take smart risks? This is where an examination of counterinsurgency tenants and organizational culture are more relevant to the task. Adapt and learning are key words in today’s military lexicon. Army Field Manual 3-24, Counterinsurgency, the seminal doctrine used by American and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, uses the word adapt 89 times but mentions the word learn or learning 179 times, for it is the learning that leads to the ability to adapt to new circumstances or information.

So, how does one create a learning organization that rewards thoughtful risk-taking and the process of learning from mistakes (or “failure” in Harford’s vernacular) which leads to improved adaptability? Military professionals interested in these issues would do better to read Edgar Shein’s Organizational Culture and Leadership, Carl Builder’s seminal work The Masks of War, or any of the aforementioned books on Iraq than Harford’s views on global warming, poverty, or warfare. It is through institutional self-examination and gaining an understanding of organizational culture that best informs leaders on ways to create the trust needed for experimentation, innovation, and adaptability. In searching for a final thought on this book, I am reminded of something a colonel told me when I was a young captain during a meeting in which I clearly missed the mark: “What you just said is interesting but not relevant.” And so goes my recommendation for this book: interesting, but not terribly relevant—to the military reader.

Lt Col Shannon W. Caudill, USAF

Air Command and Staff College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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