Why Do We Miss Antifragile Solutions?

Robust or strong is an in between or neutral position between fragile and antifragile according to Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his new book Antifragile, which has been the subject of two earlier posts. He points out that antifragile solutions usually produce far bigger returns than merely robust ones that simply continue us along the status quo, unaffected for now by unpredictable events and turbulence around us.

As usual my objection is that we tend to read into his theory, as with most others, an ‘either/or’ that can get us into trouble. Robust is a perfectly fine situation to be in much of the time. We can be robust in many areas of endeavor and do just fine reaping the benefits of good skills that keep delivering for us.

From time to time events shift in ways we haven’t and frequently couldn’t have foreseen. Then we either are beaten by them or use them to push us to new solutions that make us stronger and more robust than before (what he calls antifragile solutions). So it’s reasonable to say that coming out robust is a reasonable aim of antifragile strategies. It we become more antifragile (able to improve even further when faced with further challenges), so much the better. We just don’t want to sit still, ignoring efforts at antifragility in case robust in not enough. invention

So fine, we don’t want to sit on our laurels, but how do we avoid that. Taleb suggests funding further improvement in one of two ways. First is funding a significant number of small (read ‘inexpensive’) developmental projects continuously expanding the few that succeed and replacing failures with more small efforts – or – second, funding individuals who are creative innovators and letting them work on whatever they think they can make something of… or both. Google in probably a great example, where they fund a great many employees to the tune of telling them to work on their ‘own’ projects 20% of their work time. That certainly ensures lots of simultaneous smaller projects continually developing or being dropped and clearly meets the objective of funding potentially great leaders.

Google’s approach gets around a typical corporate problem of a small group of R&D individuals being tasked to try to find solutions to specific things. The problem with that is usually too few projects on the go and when one researcher might take off in an entirely unexpected direction to pursue something productive, many times that will be stopped because they’ve been instructed to keep looking ONLY in certain areas and not to pursue things that might come up that take them off track. Innovation often occurs when you stumble into potentially good ideas you aren’t looking for and if those aren’t pursued you get no benefit.

Taleb himself notes that great opportunities happen only rarely even when you’re looking for them. That’s a way of saying there are many more minor opportunities that come along (and in most companies aren’t taken advantage of. Toyota and it’s method of continuous improvement in ALL areas is one obvious exception. The good thing about a focus on both small and large improvements is that people get lots of practice recognizing, testing and developing on small items so that when a big one arrives, they are more likely to recognize, test and develop that!

So all of this supports ideas we’ve gleaned from a number of sources about innovative management thinking – that every employee should be encouraged to think, to lead, to take some initiative wherever possible. Everyone one of us shouldn’t hesitate to suggest, to ask questions about potential improvements on all sorts of things – especially the small every day fixes we all think about that could be tested and implemented very cheaply and serve as great training and encouragement for bigger ideas that will come from some unpredictable source if people are in the habit of thinking this way.

Is the concept of ‘antifragile’ new? Not really. Looking at what’s been written about more and more lately, you’d have to say many management researchers, speakers and consultants regularly recommend the ingredients. What’s new is simply that now we have a word for it, for people to rally around, debate, misunderstand, re-explain to each other. For some it will seem a new fad taking over the jargon, but perhaps it will expand our growing interest in how we get ourselves out of being stuck in old corporate routines. But watch – there will be plenty of people to make fun of this without really understanding what is or isn’t in it and plenty on the bandwagon who are really making no changes in the way they manage. Most of all many will struggle to show this is another form of certainty that one can master when in fact it is really all about the fact we can’t predict, we can’t ensure it other than that virtual certainty that if we keep working at stuff we’ll find a few things that really take us to new places, though maybe not the places we thought we were trying to go.