Harford - Slips   Harford - Violations   Harford - Mistakes


Tim Harford offers up his own taxonomy of failure in his book Adapt

  1. Slips – You do something you didn’t mean to do (through clumsiness or lack of attention).
  2. Mistakes – You do the act on purpose, but with unintended consequences.
  3. Violations – Someone deliberately does something wrong.

Harford discusses the challenges of each, especially the difficulty in even identifying Mistakes and Violations. They are harder to spot and lead to even more insidious failures…’Latent Errors’: “The more safety systems there are, the less likely latent errors are to be noticed until the very instant we can least afford them.”

  • “The instinctive answer is to eliminate the errors. This is an impossible dream. The alternative is to try to simplify and to decouple these high-risk systems as much as is feasible, to encourage whistleblowers to identify latent errors waiting to strike, and – sadly – to stand prepared for the worst. These are the lessons that some engineers – both petroleum engineers and financial engineers – seem to have to learn again and again.”

Sometimes ‘blowing the whistle’ is not a ‘referee signalling and infraction’, but a collaborator calling for attention on some other side of the landscape…

  • 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 a group of the very smartest agents isn’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 – a lesson Peter Palchinsky learned as he travelled the industrial hubs of Europe. 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.”

So it would seem, not to embrace diversity in your organisation would be one of the biggest Mistakes one could make.