“Adapt”, by Tim Harford, is a book focused on teaching how a corporation can survive “extinction events“, and what kinds of skills create sound and adaptive companies. It’s a worthwhile read on that basis alone, but what kinds of lessons can this book have to, say, the average high school football coach, and perhaps as well, decision making in terms of the NFL draft?

Chapter One lays the premise of the book. Tim Harford talks about a toaster,  talks about how incredibly difficult it is to make a toaster from scratch, and uses that as an example of how sophisticated the modern world is (think of a modern defense, or football offense, and how specialized these have become), and how interdependent the parts are. He then makes the parallel between corporations, their lifespans, and how even very successful corporations have disappeared over time, and biological evolution. The metaphor, though, is simply a framework for some provocative case studies.

Chapter Two gets into a lot of meaty detail. He talks about the failure of  the Iraq War and as well, the failures of Vietnam as well. He points out organizational parallels in both circumstances. I’ll note, on my own, that both Donald Rumsfeld and Robert McNamara were exceptionally smart and capable individuals. But when circumstances changed, they were both unwilling to take input that didn’t confirm their current viewpoints.

A point that Tim Harford hammers home again and again, it’s that  many heads are always better than one. Evidently, this is something demonstrable in a formal problem solving study. From page 49 of Tim’s book:

An alternative perspective on the value of an alternative perspective comes from the complexity theorists Lu Hong and Scott Page. Their decision-makers are simple automatons inside a computer, undaunted by social pressure. Yet when Hong and Page run simulations in which their silicon agents are programmed to search for solutions, they find that  the very smartest agents aren’t as successful as a more diverse group of dumber agents. Even though ‘different’ often means ‘wrong’, trying something different has a  value all of its own… Both because of  the conformity effect Asch discovered, and because of the basic usefulness of hearing more ideas, better decisions emerge from a diverse group.

This speaks to the idea of a leader being a good listener as well as someone who knows and inspires. Create a team. Make sure the team is diverse in terms of  its thinking, make sure everyone has a voice. Listen, because you don’t know whose solution will end up succeeding.

Chapter Three gets into the value of the unexpected solution. To me this provides the orthodox reason for mining the later draft choices. Tim Harford gives the example of the Supermarine Spitfire. When the British government decided to fund the development of the Spitfire, the orthodox military theory (see here and here) of the time said that pursuit aircraft, as fighters were then called, were useless. Airplanes such as the Boeing B-10 and B-17 were as fast as pursuit planes and bristled with guns. Waves of hundreds or thousands of these aircraft would  obliterate cities and make conventional war obsolete. Things such as

Billy Mitchell‘s sinking of the Ostfriesland

had so captured the imagination of military theorists they couldn’t conceive of a world where bombers could be stopped. But the government, hedging its bets, spent some money on the Spitfire anyway. Later, they were grateful they did.

This point, translated into draft theory, would go something like this: the net value of finding Pro Bowl or starter talent in the later rounds is almost incalculable. So that’s why you look, that’s why you do it. Further, you need to look for players that could start. Drafting players as perpetual backups isn’t  the point of the later rounds.

Tim goes on to develop  the theme of the affordable risk, to talk about the value of decoupling risk factors (a lot of interesting studies of failed oil rigs here). There  is a lot of meat for those in the business world, in the military (the organizational notes are exceptionally worthwhile), and as a foundation for the value of late round draft choices, one for which I’m personally grateful.

Read it sometime. You won’t regret it.

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