Tim Harford on Trial, Error and Our “God Complex”

Financial Times journalist Tim Harford and author of “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure” argues that companies that have a God complex look for smart people (what he calls “little Gods”) to solve complex problems — when what they should really be doing is establishing systematic processes of trial and error.

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Gary Loveman, who earned a Ph.D. in economics at MIT and now heads up Caesars Entertainment, has chimed in regularly on the value of small-scale testing of initiatives. His casinos will set up trials, run numbers on how they worked and implement only the best ideas company-wide.

Loveman doesn’t understand why more people don’t try things and measure the results. “There’s a romantic appreciation for instinct and, frankly, an absence of rigor for the application of more scientific approaches,” Loveman said recently (see In Experiments We Trust: From Intuit to Harrah’s Casinos).

Now comes Financial Times journalist Tim Harford, preaching a similar message. Harford’s new book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011) makes the case that it’s only through trial and error that we can find answers to complex problems.

Forget the idea that one person or even a smart team has the brains and education to think through a complex challenge. Establish, instead, a process that forces the consideration of many options. Narrow in on the best only after first considering and rejecting the many.

Here’s an excerpt of a Harford’s TEDGlobal 2011 talk last month on the topic of “Trial, error and the God complex”:

So let’s say you wanted to make detergent. Let’s say you’re Unilever and you want to make detergent in a factory near Liverpool. How do you do it? Well you have this great big tank full of liquid detergent. You pump it at a high pressure through a nozzle. You create a spray of detergent. Then the spray dries. It turns into powder. It falls to the floor. You scoop it up. You put it in cardboard boxes. You sell it at a supermarket. You make lots of money.

How do you design that nozzle? It turns out to be very important. Now if you ascribe to the God complex, what you do is you find yourself a little God. You find yourself a mathematician; you find yourself a physicist — somebody who understands the dynamics of this fluid. And he will, or she will, calculate the optimal design of the nozzle. Now Unilever did this and it didn’t work — too complicated. Even this problem, too complicated.

But the geneticist Professor Steve Jones describes how Unilever actually did solve this problem — trial and error, variation and selection. You take a nozzle and you create 10 random variations on the nozzle. You try out all 10, you keep the one that works best. You create 10 variations on that one. You try out all 10. You keep the one that works best. You try out 10 variations on that one. You see how this works, right.

And after 45 generations, you have this incredible nozzle. It looks a bit like a chess piece — functions absolutely brilliantly. We have no idea why it works, no idea at all.

And the moment you step back from the God complex — let’s just try to have a bunch of stuff; let’s have a systematic way of determining what’s working and what’s not — you can solve your problem.

You can watch the full 18 minute talk here:

One of the problems in getting people to embrace trial and error, Harford says, is that it isn’t taught. It isn’t part of our landscape or our language for how to succeed.

Schools, he says, bear much of the blame. There should be some problems on tests that don’t have a correct answer, where you’re not judged to be stupid or ignorant if you can’t find an answer. As well, politicians should campaign on the message that, as Harford puts it, goes like this: “I want to fix our health system. I want to fix our education system. I have no idea how to do it. I have half a dozen ideas. We’re going to test them out. They’ll probably all fail. Then we’ll test some other ideas out. We’ll find some that work. We’ll build on those. We’ll get rid of the ones that don’t.”

Taking a stand for trial and error sounds like an impossible dream for the political landscape. But should it be so difficult in the board room?


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Tim Harford on Trial, Error and Our “God Complex” – Improvisations – MIT Sloan Management Review | Accounting and Small Business /Beverly Shares
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