Friday, 1 June 2012

We Need A Lot More Little Things To Go Wrong

As Nietzsche said (I always wanted to begin a post that way), "That which does not kill us only makes us stronger."  Or as my first boss was fond of saying, "We only learn when things go wrong."

Both are right. But implicit in both sayings is survival and survivability

Survival of the fittest, building strength through adversity - this is how species evolve. It's what makes Kipling's poem "If" so stirring. It's the difference between all those 'best practice' presentations at corporate off-sites (let's be honest, they're about rescued screw-ups) and the whirring of shredders at Arthur Andersen. It's what turns complaints into fixes, features and products instead of fines.

Yet all the research suggests it's impossible to 'pick winners'. In fact almost all significant events in our history are Black Swans - surprise events that have a huge impact and which we rationalise by hindsight. We have no real idea which ventures will succeed and which will not until the facts and figures emerge. And even then we don't know how sustained that success will be. Indeed, sometimes we don't even know what success looks like, expecially with not-for-profit projects or organisations (including government departments - and the European Commission). In his book "Adapt" (a veritable bible on the importance of survivable failure) Tim Harford explains the need for built-in feedback to distinguish success from failure in such contexts. 

But, hey, the Euro had built-in entry criteria, and they were ignored because the politicians refused to countenance failure as an option.

And there you have it. Above all, as Harford emphasises, the critical thing is to accept the risk of failure, but to ensure that such failure is survivable.

Our political and economic leaders don't grasp this any more today than their forbears did when negotiating the Maastricht Treaty. Because they see it as their job to protect 'the system'. But by continuing to back the same institutions, the same systems, and essentially replicating and deepening the same old regulatory regime, they're merely resisting the tide of evolution. Rather than cutting their losses, they're busy hurling the big dice again, and again, and again like so many casino junkies.

It's impossible to mix too many metaphors in a situation like this. So here's another: if Necessity really is the mother of Invention, then we have to get her to a fertility clinic.

We need more trials and more errors of the survivable variety. In other words, we need a hell of a lot more little things to go wrong before the big things start going right.

Maybe we should make it our leaders' job to promote innovation instead of protecting the system?

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