Why ‘adapt’ is the new ‘nudge’ (and why that’s good for social entrepreneurs)

  Skininthegame I’ve written before about my love of podcasts, and how they can spark off new ideas or generate new thinking on the way to and from work. My current fave is More Or Less, the Radio 4 programme about statistics, numbers, and how they relate to the news events of the day (often to politics and policy).  This covers everything from the real value of the national debt to the comparative effectiveness of different contraceptives. It’s more interesting (and entertaining) than it sounds, and  it is particularly useful to have that rational discipline and questioning mindset when, like me, you are giving a lot of thought to an organisation’s measurement and evaluation.

I mention all this because the main man of More Or Less is Tim Harford, also known as the FT’s Undercover Economist (incidentally, the book of that name is a great intro to economic thinking and gives useful insights into pricing, costing, markets and much else besides).  He has a book being launched later this year called Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, and I’m looking forward to it to an almost indecent degree.

Why? Well, if you read my recent piece on how social entrepreneurs learn, or anything about SSE’s approach to learning, you’ll know that we are keen advocates of action learning or learning by doing. That the best learning comes from action, and that the most successful initiatives are not those with the perfect business plan, but those which learn from failures, mistakes and imperfections. That things get figured out on the frontline, not in back offices;  that it is not academic ‘experts’ who solve complex problems, but practitioners with experience; that solutions are often better generated from bottom-up action and adaptation than top-down planning and grand strategies.

Indeed, it is that flexibility, agility, and adaptability that is identifiable in the best social entrepreneur-led organisations around, explaining their ability to both continuously improve and innovate their product and service, and also their readiness to seize opportunities and utilise untapped resources. The blurb for Harford’s book resonates strongly with this, saying that ‘out’ go experts, plans and (top-down) leaders, and ‘in’ come adaptation, improvisation, failing and learning (and trying again). And it looks like he will apply that thinking to big problems (Iraq, global warming, terrorism) and ‘small’ ones equally (everyday decisions in life and business).

While ‘nudging’ focuses on influencing (and changing) behaviours, adapting is more fundamentally about encouraging action before planning, overcoming obstacles as they arise, changing approaches rapidly and, most of all, about shifting the culture of risk-aversity to one of risk-awareness and even risk-acceptance. And further accepting that there will be failures along the way.  It is an approach that makes most sense in a world in which contexts and circumstances shift rapidly, and in which the pace of society’s development (and life generally) seems to outpace the best-made plans of policymakers and theorists.

So 2010 might have been the year of ‘nudge’, but 2011 should be the year of ‘adapt’ (and the year after that….).

[NB – Some might then advocate for an ‘adapt’ unit at the heart of government, perhaps headed up by Tim Harford himself; but obviously that would be a top-down, strategic plan for adaptation with an expert at the centre…which wouldn’t really work at all :0) ]



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4 thoughts on “Why ‘adapt’ is the new ‘nudge’ (and why that’s good for social entrepreneurs)

  1. Tom Peters wrote compellingly almost 20 years ago about the need to move from an approach that was characterised by ‘ready, aim, fire’or even ‘ready,aim,aim,aim,aim’ to one of ‘ready,fire,aim’. He was not writing about social entrepreneurs, or even entrepreneurs but about organisational culture. http://www.tompeters.com/col_entries.php?note=005295&year=1990 for a sample.
    Truth is that some are great at action but not so good at reflection. Others prefer the reflection and seldom if ever act with boldness. And to succeed of course we need both. Action and reflection. Planning and implementation. Top down and bottom up.
    Paralysis sets in when we consistently allow one of these poles to dominate.

  2. Thanks both for the comments.
    Mike – thanks for that; makes v. good reading + much sense. I like the ready, fire, aim (aim better, fire better etc), and the point about reflection and action seems spot on to me. And one that, in our context, forms a crucial part of the approach.
    Adrian – I’ll check this out. I actually quite like the principles behind the ‘nudge’ stuff (the book is interesting reading), and the insight into behaviours and influencing change.

  3. As Rosabeth Moss Kanter said, “Everything looks like failure in the middle.” She’s right. A tolerance for failure is the mark of all entrepreneurs, not just social ones, as long as it is accompanied by the passion and wisdom to learn from failure and try again.