What do tractors have to do with the report-ing of HMV's apparent demise? A lot actually. Before 1916 tractors were so heavy that using them wou-ld often ruin the land they were driven on, and they were dangerous to use because their weight wasn't distributed properly. Tractors would often fall over if they hit large rocks or uneven ground.
It was Irishman Harry Ferguson who made the key innovation in 1916. He realised that you could shed a lot of weight by making the engine block a part of the chassis, rather than mounting an engine on the chassis. This solved the weight distribution problem, and allowed a new innovation – the power from the engine could be transferred to implements connected to it.
Ferguson didn't stop there, and in 1932 after constant, but incremental, innovation, he debuted a tractor with very large back wheels, making tractors much safer.
Ferguson's ideas revolutionised agriculture once Henry Ford introduced them into the United States in the late 1930s. The rise of the tractors removed the need for horses.
The tractor's development is an example of what evolutionary biologist Stuart Kaufman calls 'the adjacent possible'. The adjacent possible is a beautiful idea, where recombining the elements you already have, or adding one new one, creates something very close to the original, but different. Then the next recombination moves a little further away from the original, and so on. The importance of the idea comes from the fact that history matters – you couldn't foresee the 1932 tractor evolving from the 1916 version in 1916 – and from the notion that the future is around us, waiting for us to figure out how to combine them.
Importantly, from today's perspective, events like the development of the tractor will look like a straight, simple progression from one innovation to the next. But they weren't. They were weird jumps through an unfolding maze, with today's choices dependent on yesterday's choices. Viewed from the present towards the future, it's not a straight line at all. The difference between looking backwards and looking forwards is the adjacent possible.
HMV is the last of the big record retailers, with an annual turnover of €2bn but hundreds of millions in losses, and serious bank debts. The banks, if they call in the loans due to them, will destroy the company, making more than 4,000 employees unemployed in the UK and Ireland.
Also lost will be part of the adolescence of everyone over 30. Anyone under 30, not so much. And that's the point: HMV delivers its products in a way that those who buy such products don't need any more. They have iTunes.
It has astonished me that commentators have been able to easily identify the retailer's major mistakes so easily. The pontificating began barely half an hour after HMV's administration announcement. Looking backwards, it almost seems as if HMV's management meant to destroy their company. Many commentators seem quite assured that the company made major errors in the areas it diversified into, once the writing was on the wall that movies and music would be distributed through the internet. For example, commentators harp on about the fact that in recent years the retailer added Waterstones, the ailing book retailer, to its stable, added the MAMA group of live music promoters, and diversified its in-store offerings into games and electronics, as well as trying to acquire an online presence to compete with iTunes and Amazon.
Looking back, these all seem like mistakes. Many, of course, were, but didn't seem so at the time. Commentators forgot, or didn't know, that HMV opened its first online store in 1999, that it had significant online retail presences in firms like 7digital, that it tried to diversify but ultimately failed.
Look at the decisions HMV made when it was clear the internet would change its business. First, in 1999, it tried to replicate its in-store experience online. Then it moved closer to something it knew well – music – and partnered to put on live performances. HMV cut costs and closed shops, but opened cinemas and cafes. It tried to innovate, to push into the adjacent possible, but the choices HMV's directors made were not the right ones, and it couldn't sustain its new activities when its core business of selling CDs and DVDs failed.
Failure in business should be seen as information, a winding path of decisions that was tried, and ultimately didn't work. Fine, everyone else can learn from HMV's experience, and move on. Many high street retailers need this information if they are to take the decisions necessary to survive.
Innovation and invention are often only cited when people see success, as Harry Ferguson did. But negative results have their value, too. The more we recognize this fact, the less business failure, and the ability to recover from that failure, will be stigmatised. We need people who can fail and get back up again if we are to succeed as a nation.