Over the holidays I read Tim Harford‘s book ‘Adapt‘. In it, he discusses how various tricky problems (from running a sucessful business to solving world poverty) are best tackled using an evolutionary approach. He discusses three steps to sucessful ‘evolution’: first you need a variety of possible solutions, you need to make sure that if any solution fails (and many will) you can survive it and finally you need to identify which of the many solutions works best in the context you are dealing with.
I sometimes find books which attempt to explain all sorts of things using a central model or metaphor a bit annoying and contrived – but Adapt really rang true for me. When I was pondering this, I realised that I liked it so much because I already have a tendency to view life throught the lens of evolution. I used to research immunology and the processes that go on in our bodies as we fight diseases are remarkably good metaphors for understanding the world. By looking at the immune system you can see the results of ‘classical’ evolution (i.e. the selection of sucessful genes over long time periods). But the immune system also has a special adaptive arm that displays an accelerated form of adaptation – kind of like evolution on speed.
So, my dear readers, I thought that I would go ahead and give you a wee immunology lesson (you’re welcome) because I think it can help us all to understand the world!
In your blood there are lots of cells including some special ones which form the adaptive immune system. These cells are called T-cells and B-cells and they are like adaptation Jedi masters. There are a few different sub-types of both T and B cells but essentially they all work in a similar way. To start with, your body produces a whole load of different cells with sticky ‘receptors’ on them. Each cell has only one kind of receptor but the receptors on different cells are slightly different.
Now, when a germ comes along, because there are so many different immune cells with so many different sticky receptors on them, it will eventually stick to one of them. Even better, the cells have a built-in feedback system so they recognise ‘danger signals’ which are like little red flags that indicate that whatever the cell has stuck to is a ‘baddie’. When a B-cell or T-cell sticks to a dangerous germ, the feedback mechanism kicks in, and very quickly that one lucky cell multiplies into a immune system army – each member of which is specific for the particular germ that the first one encountered.
And the army of cells sets off to kill the germs in a variety of interesting ways.
Once all the germs have been killed, the immune system more or less goes back to normal but with one key difference – a small sleeper ‘cell’ (no pun intended) is maintained with specificity for that particular germ. It means that if you encounter the same germ again, the body can get rid of it much faster. This explains why vaccines work – the vaccine promotes an inital reaction against a germ (or a part of a germ) so that when you encounter the actual germ you have the ability to get rid of it quickly.
I think the adaptation of immune cells is a good metaphor for many of the stories that Tim Harford describes in ‘Adapt’. Whether you are running a business or trying to solve world poverty, it is a good idea to try out a whole variety of solutions. In fact, if you want to be like the immune system, you might want to be designing and trying out new ways of doing things before you even think you have a problem! You also need to make sure that when one of your solutions ‘works’, you have a good feedback system in place so that this is recognised and that there is capacity to rapidly scale it up. And crucially, if the particular ‘problem’ disappears, you want to make sure that you don’t forget about the solution you came up with. You should make sure that the capacity to deal with a similar problem in the future is maintained.
So, what did I learn from ‘Adapt’? Although it focussed on some rather ‘macro’ issues, it actually made me think a lot about organisations and the qualities of a good leader or manager. The book makes it clear that taking an evolutionary approaches to problem solving is not an alternative to good leadership. In fact, enabling an organisation (whatever it may be) to adapt and deal with problems in this evolutionary manner could be seen as the hallmark of trully great leaders. Without such leadership, the natural tendency of people to innovate and experiment becomes crushed by mindless adherance to rules and lack of delegated authority. This point is illustrated brilliantly in the book by examining different approaches to leading the US military in recent years but I am sure we can all also think of organisations where we have encountered the same problem on a smaller scale.
Luckily, Harford is not the only person to be thinking along these lines. I was lucky to have the opportunity to do a diploma in management a couple of years ago and I discovered that there is a huge body of work on organisational development examining how organisations can become more adaptive and healthy. Essentially, much of this work is promoting a similar approach to that described by Harford: enable local-level innovation, make sure you can recognise success and then have systems which allow successful solutions to be scaled up efficiently.
In conclusion, I highly recommend reading Adapt. And, I liked it so much that I have nominated it as book of the month on this business book club that I am a member of – its free to join so feel free to pop in to join in the discussion.