“We have built a robust system.”
“We have to increase our resilience in the face of global challenges.”
“Contents are fragile. Please do not drop.”
How many times have you heard variations on these three statements? They are all declarations or instructions to take the worst that the world can throw at you squarely on the chin and be unharmed.
They are effectively saying:
“The best-case scenario is that after everything that happens we stay the same.”
Conversely Friedrich Nietzsche famously stated “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Kanye West, Kelly Clarkson and Jake Bugg may have been inspired enough to take that onboard and share the sentiment, but sadly the world of business is just happy with the less ambitious wish to be at best unharmed by economic tides, global pandemics or clumsy delivery drivers.
In his book Antifragile, Nassim Taleb makes one of those observations that stop you in your tracks and think “you’re right… why didn’t I think of that?”
There is no opposite to fragile.
“Robust” and “resilient” come close, but they still imply that staying the same is the best you can hope for. In the realm of medicine Wolff’s Law states that bones grow stronger when placed under an external load, but businesses and people sending fine china through the post seem to be happy with weathering, rather than benefitting from the knocks that life delivers.
Taleb’s contention is that while “fragile” – in this context anything you are currently seeking to protect – suggests that you’ve got more to lose than to gain; “antifragile” implies you’ve got more to gain than to lose. While this flies in the face of well-documented work on heuristics and biases such as the “loss aversion” bias (people would usually prefer to not lose £20 that they have rather than find £20 they didn’t have) it does raise questions about how organisations see how they will come out of the other side of the challenges we have all faced in the past year.
Life is random. It’s also chaotic, unpredictable and frequently fast moving. By suppressing this randomness, by being selective with the input sources you use, by sticking with what (you think) you know and increasing the noise by using ever more complex streams of data to inform your decision-making – by fetishising being “robust” and “resilient” - you are wrapping all your goods in bubble wrap, writing “please do not drop” on the outside and trusting the universe that, having taken all the necessary precautions no one is going to fling it across the warehouse into the back of a van underneath the kettlebells that someone bought off eBay to get them through the lockdown.
By all means take precautions. I’m not advocating mindless risk-taking, but always look for opportunities to refresh your view of the world, see potential and take positive steps in the face of adversity so you can create something better than what you had.
I’ll leave you with the thinking that explains why we are driven by the biases that are drawn from previous experience.
1. There’s too much information. It needs to be filtered. Noise becomes signal.
2. The signal has gaps that we need to fill in, which we fill in with stories.
3. Life comes at you fast, so we use the stories we tell ourselves to make decisions.
4. These decisions create our mental models of the world. Repeat at Step One.
What would happen if you looked again into the random and the unpredictable and instead of looking for patterns to help you stay the same sought out the opportunities to come back better and more… antifragile?