The adaptive organisation

Continuing from the post: Adapting

The adaptive organisation is the second-last chapter of Adapt: Why success always starts with failure, followed by Adapting and you. In the final chapters, Tim Harford examines how groups and individuals can strive to adapt, and here are some highlights.

“So let’s first acknowledge a crucial difference: individuals, unlike populations, can succeed without adapting.” This statement explains a lot about what happens in organizations 😉

Case study of Timpson:

The first thing Timpson does when it buys another business is to rip out the electronic point-of-sale machines (there are always EPOS machines) and replace them with old-fashioned cash registers. ‘EPOS lets people at head office run the business’, explains John Timpson. ‘I don’t want them to run the business.’ EPOS machines empower head offices but they make it harder to be flexible and give customers what they need.

… how senior executives must feel when their cutting-edge, market-leading business finds itself being disrupted by a foolish-looking new technology:

A sufficiently disruptive innovation bypasses almost everybody who matters at a company: the Rolodex full of key customers becomes useless; the old skills are no longer called for; decades of industry experience count for nothing. In short, everyone who counts in a company will lose status if the disruptive innovation catches on inside that company – and whether consciously or unconsciously, they will often make sure that it doesn’t.

These, then, are the three obstacles to heeding that old advice, ‘learn from your mistakes’:

  1. denial, because we cannot separate our error from sense of self-worth;
  2. self-destructive behaviour, because … we compound our losses by trying to compensate for them;
  3. rose-tinted processes … whereby we remember past mistakes as though they were triumphs, or mash together our failures with our successes.

How to overcome these obstacles:

“Honest advice from others is better.”

Perhaps there is one reason why researchers find that self-employed people tend to be happier than the employed: they receive implicit approval of what they do every time somebody pays their invoice, whereas people with regular jobs tend to receve feedback that is both less frequent and less meaningful.

“So it’s worth remembering once again why it is worth experimenting, even though many experiments will, indeed, end in failure. It’s because the process of correcting the mistakes can be more liberating than the mistakes themselves are crushing, even though at the time we so often feel that the reverse is true.”

The book covers and cites several key points from The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Future of Management, which may make it a bit tedious for those who’ve read many management books, but overall I would recommend it as a fresh perspective on some key organizational and structural issues.


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