Trial and error as a strategic planning tool

Tim Harford: trial, error and the God complex

In this TED Talk, Tim Harford explains how ‘the God Complex’ can lead to failure. The God complex is an overwhelming belief that you have a single solution to a complex problem. It’s that belief that you have found a simple way of explaining complex systems – like let’s say, outcomes of education or perhaps educational change in academic organisations. Tim Harford suggests an alternative way of approaching a complex problem. He suggests problem solving ‘with humility’ by trial and error and systematically monitoring the results, citing examples of how this approach is also being used by designers, economists and commercial organisations. We might have no idea about why something works, but we can see when it does.

I’m thinking of the conversations we are starting within OCSLD to examine what we do and its effect within the university, to help us decide what to continue, what to drop and what to begin. We have stated our commitment to exploring new ways of working in our objectives for the year and (using techniques from Paul Sloane’s The Innovative Leader), we have generated more than 50 ideas for things we could do to make us more client focussed. We seem to have stalled at  choosing which ideas to take forward. Should we put our resources into our location or our software? Should we swap workshops for 1-1s? Should we prioritise the provision of high quality staff development or offer more brokering and coaching services to help individuals choose what’s right for them?

I could not promote a way of working without understanding why it is successful as Harford seems to suggest,  but could we try first,  then evaluate, then reach some understanding? Perhaps trial and error offers us a way to stop agonising over what to do and say instead ‘well, let’s try it all and see what works?’.


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To support the University’s mission through the provision of high quality internal and external staff and educational development, and to undertake research and publish in those areas.

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