Adapting in practice: what questions might we ask?
Purpose ‐ Via philosophy of science, the paper seeks to identify the role of trial and error in business and other managed activities, including economic development. Design/methodology/approach ‐ Drawing first on Karl Popper's view of trial and error as essential to the evolution of all life, including all human activity, the paper asks what we mean by science, and how distinctive is the scientific mode of enquiry. It goes on to look at, in particular, the treatment of trial and error, and of evolution, in two best-selling management books of the last 25 years, and at the relevance of this treatment to some recent discussions of economic development. Findings ‐ Popper's distinction between science and various types of non-science is not as clear-cut as is sometimes portrayed. Moreover, there are significant variants to Popper's view of scientific method. But accepting Popper's view of the centrality of trial and error for problem solving the paper finds significant echoes in some management thinking. Related questions occur, also, in some recent discussions of economic development. Practical implications ‐ The paper argues that trial and error is a well-established approach in business and other managed activities, and that there is potential to learn from many examples of success and disappointment. Originality/value ‐ The paper questions whether some views of science, and of the demarcation between science and non-science, are as clear-cut as is sometimes assumed. It argues against claimed novelty in some recent discussion of evolutionary process in business and elsewhere.