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Tim Harford on the power of adapting and 4 obstacles to it

Tim Harford describes four obstacles to trying something new.Tim Harford describes four obstacles to trying something new.Several years ago when I first joined JMP, John Sall had just finished reading Tim Harford’s book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. He recommended it to me, and I’m so glad he did!

Since then, I have enjoyed more of Tim’s works: Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform our Lives, Fifty Inventions That Shaped the Modern Economy, and I subscribe to his Undercover Economist posts and have enjoyed several of his online talks (most recently, the TED Talk on the power of slow-motion multitasking). Because I also studied economics, I appreciate Tim’s thoughtful exploration of economic ideas, often where we don’t expect them.

We were delighted to finally have him present the closing keynote talk for JMP Discovery Summit Europe. He has so many interesting topics and talks, and even though Adapt has been out for a while, we love the message of trying new things and adapting from what we learn to solve problems in our increasingly complex world. (Of course, we advocate thoughtful experimentation in all forms!)

Tim has a gift for conveying his points through well-told stories, and his talk reminded me how much I enjoyed Adapt as he explored stories like Twyla Tharp’s risk-taking in the ballet/musical Movin’ Out and how we can make one bad decision after another as shown by an episode of Deal or No Deal? 

He guided us through four obstacles or traps our minds can set for us, and how to avoid them so that we can achieve higher rates of success and learn from our missteps.

The first is conformity. This was illustrated by an entertaining clip from a decades-old Candid Camera episode where unsuspecting participants in elevators succumbed to the behaviors of others in the elevator — facing the back of the elevator, removing their hats, and turning again to face the front of the elevator. To overcome conformity, we should add diversity, encourage debates, and in general, ask questions.

The second and third obstacles are related: broken (or nonexistent) and slow feedback loops. We need feedback, and we should seek specific feedback as quickly as possible. The faster we get feedback, the sooner we can act on it and learn faster from our mistakes.

The fourth obstacle is loss aversion, painfully illustrated by an episode of Deal or No Deal? To counter this obstacle, we need to think about the future, and we need to “make peace with our losses,” as the work of psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky instruct. 

Tim nicely summarized the case for adapting: We all need to be observers of what it takes to adapt, and we need a willingness to risk failure if we truly want to succeed.

You can view the entire talk in the JMP User Community.* 

*Note: The recording of the talk will be available until March 14, 2020.