One of my favourite TED talks is by Tim Harford titled Trial and Error and the God Complex.

Harford is an economics writer who studies complex systems and finds a surprising link among the most successful ones; they are built through trial and error.

His talk centers around the idea of a God complex, a refusal to admit the possibility of being wrong regardless of the complexity of the situation, and how trial and error creates better results than a self proclaimed expert.

Here is an excerpt from Harford’s stellar Ted Talk:


So let’s say you wanted to make detergent. Let’s say you’re Unilever and you want to make detergent in a factory near Liverpool. How do you do it? Well you have this great big tank full of liquid detergent. You pump it at a high pressure through a nozzle. You create a spray of detergent. Then the spray dries. It turns into powder. It falls to the floor. You scoop it up. You put it in cardboard boxes. You sell it at a supermarket. You make lots of money.

How do you design that nozzle? It turns out to be very important. Now if you ascribe to the God complex, what you do is you find yourself a little God. You find yourself a mathematician; you find yourself a physicist — somebody who understands the dynamics of this fluid. And he will, or she will, calculate the optimal design of the nozzle. Now Unilever did this and it didn’t work — too complicated. Even this problem, too complicated.

But the geneticist Professor Steve Jones describes how Unilever actually did solve this problem — trial and error, variation and selection. You take a nozzle and you create 10 random variations on the nozzle. You try out all 10, you keep the one that works best. You create 10 variations on that one. You try out all 10. You keep the one that works best. You try out 10 variations on that one. You see how this works, right.

And after 45 generations, you have this incredible nozzle. It looks a bit like a chess piece — functions absolutely brilliantly. We have no idea why it works, no idea at all.

And the moment you step back from the God complex — let’s just try to have a bunch of stuff; let’s have a systematic way of determining what’s working and what’s not — you can solve your problem.


This talk has challenged me to keep a trial & error lifestyle, without regrets.

The lesson here for entrepreneurs is to: adapt quickly, experiment often, and continually try new things.



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