Trial and Error – An approach that works

Human beings often appear instinctively to shun uncertainty. That is why, as at least one commentator has pointed out, the more changeable the future appears to be, the more we seek forecasts from those who we think can offer appropriate guidance. At one time those we thus looked to for foresight included soothsayers or astrologers but now, at least in business, it would seem that market researchers or economists are consulted instead, writes Dr Simon Bridge exclusively for Business First Online.

That approach fits well with a general belief that, if they apply themselves properly, those with relevant knowledge ought to be able to work out how things will work out in the future because, as Voltaire once said: “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking”. Therefore, guided by the example of people like Newton in his explanation of gravity and the motion of the planets, we are tempted to think that, if we try hard enough, we should be able to identify what is happening and why – and then use that knowledge to forecast future developments.

But the reality is that future projections are usually extrapolations from current trends and, as history shows us, sooner or later (and often sooner) the unexpected happens and the trends change. So, if we can’t foresee it, how should we approach the future?

Trial and Error

One method that has been shown to work is what we call ‘trial and error’ – although ‘error’ is not the right word for a method which, as Tim Harford has highlighted, ”whether we like it or not, is a tremendously powerful process for solving problems in a complex world, while expert leadership is not”. But that approach of preparing as far as you can, and then trying it to see what works and what can/should be improved, has to be done with an appropriate mindset.

There has been lots of conventional advice, and teaching, about forecasting and planning but less about approaches which might help in situations when forecasts cannot reliably be made. As Henry Mintzberg once pointed out: “it would be well to bear in mind the disarmingly simple point that the future does not exist; how could there be knowledge about something non-existent?” Also in their book, Radical Uncertainty, John Kay and Mervyn King distinguish between resolvable uncertainty, which can be reduced or removed by looking something up or accessing known probability distributions, and radical uncertainty which cannot. Problems with radical uncertainty are also sometimes referred to as ‘wicked’ problems because they cannot be solved, whereas ‘tame’ problems can.

Therefore, when faced with radical uncertainty, it can be helpful to try to emulate the approach taken by explorers, or at least by the successful ones. They recognise that they cannot work out in advance exactly what they will find so they have to look with an open mind and then be prepared to have to keep looking and adjusting to what they do find.

That is also consistent with the expression: ready-fire-aim. Life is not like a rifle bullet which, once fired, cannot be redirected and for which ready-aim-fire is a therefore a good guide. It is instead like a guided missile which, after being prepared, should be started on its way and can then be guided onto a target even as that target moves.

Possibly going a step further than that, Nassim Nicholas Taleb invented the word ‘Antifragile’ as the title for his book because he wanted a word for the opposite of ‘fragile’ – something which gets stronger and/or better from its experiences. But, to become stronger from events, you have to be exposed to them and not protected from their effects – and again that is consistent with ‘trial and error’.

However if we are successfully to pursue a trial and error approach we need to confront the word ‘failure’ – and a helpful way to do that might be to recognise that we often use the word failure for two different things. One is for a bad result which, if we had taken the trouble to think first, we should have realised is what might happen – such as failing an exam sat without adequate prior study and revision.

However the other is for something which does not succeed when the only way to discover whether it works or not is to try it. The latter is actually a successful experiment if the lesson is learnt whereas the former is to be avoided and/or criticised when it does happen. Unfortunately, because we use the same word for both, we confuse the two. Either we then think all failure is the first sort and shun it, thus also damning ‘trial and error’, or sometimes we are encouraged to welcome all failure as if it were the second sort, and then we don’t try to think first when we should.


Unfortunately it sometimes seems that in government circles all ‘failure’ is viewed as the first sort and consequently shunned in case it is picked up and criticised by a system which looks for what hasn’t worked rather than for what is promising. Is the result of that an aversion to ‘trial and error’ approaches, even though they are often to best route to success. And is that in turn a significant barrier to improvement and progress?

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