Bemoaning the speed and amount of change she sees in the publishing industry (i.e., not enough), Suw Charman-Anderson urged publishers to read Adapt by Tim Harford in a recent Forbes article. Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (US paperback, Picador, May 2012) doesn’t actually spend much time arguing that survival means change, assuming that as a given. As indicated by the book’s subtitle, Harford, a popular columnist at the Financial Times, and author of the bestselling The Undercover Economist, is interested is how change is tied to failure.
Adapt’s three guidelines for effective change are what Harford calls The Palchinsky Principles, after the Soviet engineer who advised Stalin on industrial projects: “First, seek out new ideas and try new things; second, do [this] on a scale where failure is survivable; third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along.” Harford finds that the biggest challenge is not failure itself, but the perverse lengths to which the human mind will go to ignore it. “We are” says Harford, “blinder than we think,”—and we will do everything we can to keep it that way.
By seeking out the new, the first Palchinsky Principle fosters a diverse environment—the crucial setting for Darwinian trial-and-error evolution. Decades of research with experts from a range of fields have demonstrated just how rarely “expert predictions” become reality, causing Harford to argue that an abundance of revolutionary ideas that are as different from each other as possible are the only way to hit on any real “game-changers.”
One example Harford returns to again and again is Google, whose “strategy of pushing out the widest possible range of products” has its most recent incarnation in their expansion from content delivery to content creation through acquisition of Zagat and Frommer’s. Google (and other companies’) well-known policy of allowing each of their engineers 20% of his or her work time free to invent “worthwhile” projects is an ideal way to encourage variety of ideas and eventually to hit on something that sticks: fifty percent of Google’s ventures are products of engineer free time, Google News and Adsense among them.
In addition to happening on new solutions, variety is also integral to the second Palchinsky Principle: making an environment in which failure is survivable. Harford writes that the fastest-growing industries tend to be those with the greatest diversity of approach; those industries also have the highest rates of failure. Alongside statistics from twentieth century automobile and electronics industries, Harford cites a case study from book businessas it existed in the 1400’s. After the first Gutenberg Bible was produced in 1455, the industry spread through Europe like wildfire, including to “Venice, where twelve companies were established by 1469. Nine of them were gone in just three years, as the industry fumbled for a profitable business model.” When that model arrived it looked nothing like Gutenberg’s Bible: Venetian printers built their empire on the growing popularity of printed religious indulgences. Without variety in their business models, not only would some printers never have happened upon something that worked, the industry’s early failings wouldn’t have been survivable.
The third Palachinsky principle uses variety to help make constructive use of failure. In addition to coming up with creative solutions and providing enough alternatives when some fail, diversity of opinion can help spot problems that one mindset would ignore. It can also help free individuals’ minds from self-imposed blindness. In a famous study by Solomon Asch, a test subject was grouped with several actors and asked which of two lines on a flashcard was longer. Whenthe actors gave the wrong answer, a large number of test subjects would change their answers to reflect the blatantly wrong majority opinion. However, if even one of the nine actors changed his answer, the test subject would almost invariably change his as well. Other studies indicatethat the drive to make self-harming decisions is strongest once a person realizes they’ve already made a mistake. Though there are theories about why this is, the general idea is that the human brain views correcting a mistake as “crystallizing” it, making it real by admitting it happened. In order to truly make use of failures, “it is not enough to tolerate dissent: sometimes you have to demand it.”
Even though Harford’s thesis hinges on the fact that we don’t delve enough into failure, that might be where his own book falls short. Admittedly, Adapt never claims to be prescriptive for particular instances; it’s more about cultivating a failure-conscious mindset than a business plan. But the resources it takes to foster daring leaps that can end in failure and to survive them are considerable, and book publishing is not notoriously deep-pocketed. It would be great to be Google and give all one’s editors 20% free time to pursue exciting independent projects, but it would be great to Google for lots of reasons. And monetary resources aside, what about human resources? The fewer heads, the less diversity one can pursue, it would seem.
Nevertheless, there are practical places to start. One example of a publisher making changes in order to make better use of “internal diversity” is Faber & Faber, which recently announced its adoption of the software Wazoku to better collect and use staff ideas and critiques. It’s obviously too early to size up Wazoku’s impact on Faber’s operations. But given that discussions of transformation usually take place in broad terms, and at a time when publishers are fighting to adapt at terrific speed, the question of what makes good change work seems just as useful as the more frequent question of what good change looks like. While the outward-facing questions of How will people be reading? and Where will they be buying their books in 5 years time? are pivotal, Adapt invites introspection and questions about the ways that company culture and attitude can be just as powerful tools for effective change as close observation of the marketplace.