THIS book revolves around the key insights that human activities in different spheres exercise and known as social Darwinism. Institutions and behaviour of insecure complexity arise not primarily through design but through trial and error. Why is trial and error such an effective tool for solving problems? The evolutionary algorithm – of variations and selection, repeated – searches for solutions in a world where the problems keep changing, trying all sorts of variants and doing more of what works. For any problem, it is possible to imagine a huge range of potential solutions and involves trying them out before succeeding in one. The fittest or the best adapted to the environment survives while the least fitted fails. And it is that failure which becomes the stepping stone to success, to progress. “For one to succeed, many must fail,” says the author. These words have implications for the financial market regulation, for corporations, for competition policy and for military strategy.
Tim Harford suggests three Palchinsky principles to encourage stronger motivation, better leadership and effective policies:
* Variation to seek out and try new ideas
* Survivability or trying something new to do
* Selection by seeking out feedbacks and learning from mistakes.
Harford’s advice is that individuals and business houses can position themselves with luck and skill at the crest of a wave like a surfer does. The surfer doesn’t control the wave; he can read it, understand it and ride it for a while until its energy or his skill fails. Meanwhile, there are hundreds and thousands who flounder on the water or wait for the next wave. How do the surfers master the waves? By putting thousands of them in the water, trying and falling again and again. You cannot have the occasional glorious success without thousands of failures.
The author cites the experiences of heroes like Reginald Mitchell (an aeronautical engineer known for his design of the submarine Spitfire), HR McMaster (a US soldier credited for securing the Iraqi city of Tal Afar and defeating the city’s insurgent strongholds), Esther Duflo (a French economist who using randomised trials to improve the effectiveness of aid programmes); Archie Cochrane (a Scottish doctor whose work during and after the World War II drove forward the significance of evidence-based medicine); Twyla Tharp (American dancer, choreographer and creative genius behind many successful Broadway shows) etc.
The book shows that their successes were not overnight or fleeting but changed the course of history for thousands of people. They were committed to trial and error and included people who were willing to recognise their failures and setbacks as part of their search to find something better.
(Little Brown Book Group, 100 Victoria Embankment, London EC4Y 0DY; www.hachette.co.uk)