By Dave Crisp
What is antifragile? The new buzzword from author Nassim Nicholas Taleb I discussed last week is the missing third piece from the following spectrum from worst to best:
•fragile (the fatal end – affected badly by turbulence or the unexpected)
•strong (unaffected, able to go on just as they were, unchanged, neutral)
•antifragile (improved by tough times, affected for the better).
Doesn’t this fit those companies who managed themselves so well that when the big recession hit they were positioned to come out stronger — not just as good as before, but literally stronger. They learned more new skills, took over weaker competitors and added new markets.
Contrast that with the majority who were severely hurt and a few who were simply so strong their business wasn’t affected.
The strong simply keep on with what they’re doing, often not changing, not improving until a further crisis arrives that they may not be robust enough to survive forces them to reflect. By contract, the antifragile aren’t just strong, they get stronger because of troubles. They anticipate and put themselves out to innovate, to change, to improve continuously and so position themselves to thrive in a changed world far better than either of the other two groups.
How you do this can vary, but underneath a similar sort of process is often at work. Look at Apple's Steve Jobs and Microsoft's Bill Gates. Jobs was the big gambler, nearly going bust several times, but relying on his own taste and sense of style and marketing for almost all the answers. While his was a riskier route, the dynamic was reasonably similar to Gates’ — innovate before it’s needed and thrive.
Where Microsoft often has four or more operating systems in development simultaneously at one time (and has been criticized for it by stock analysts as wasting effort), Gates uses that method: smaller trial projects until one emerged as superior in the market – ultimately Windows, which has now gone through many revisions, some simultaneously in the form of various versions. Jobs simply kept his variations mostly secret and sequential (riskier since there is no alternate if failure looms) and bet the farm on single innovations rather than multiple ones simultaneously. There were quite a few well-publicized failures — like Lisa — along the way that nearly sank the ship.
Both these leaders illustrate one key: Acceptance of the lack of ability to predict exactly what will work coupled with the commitment to keep trying.
Jobs simply tried many early variations himself and rejected those his engineers put forward that he felt would fail, pushing them toward further models he could test before anything went to market. Some of that had to be because of his spectacular earlier failures in the market and a desire not to go that big or look that incompetent again, whereas Gates would get "close enough" to market variations of systems to start fixing them with endless updates and more major revisions until one or another became acceptable while the weaker were dropped.
For myself, I think of the endless experimenting I do with personal fixes. It took two years of trying out solutions to persistent pain in my hip recently to finally get to the cause and fix it. In between I tried changing how I exercise, visiting chiropractors and even a massage therapist, reading extensively, resting the muscles, strengthening the muscles and more. As with all my projects, I try to keep the costs low at least until I’ve exhausted all obvious, cheap options. The solution almost invariably turns out to be something simple that I couldn’t have predicted early on.
In his book, Taleb repeatedly illustrates both the futility of trying to predict and the value of repeated trial and error efforts — actions rather than theories — to get to solutions.
What he misses is how the two interact. In his haste to make academics and other theorizers look foolish, he leaves the impression that theorizing is totally useless. He says otherwise in passing, but that gets lost in his grumpy critiques and "I told you so’s."
In fact, the two work best together — another illustration of the value of engaging diversity in thinking and styles — and he actually points that out indirectly. He clearly has read nearly everything written in his field. Why, if theory has no value? In fact, you jump many steps in solving problems by looking at what others believe has worked or hasn’t previously. You have to allow for the fact that why they think it worked may be entirely wrong, but their trials and errors and ideas, right or wrong, certainly take you further than trying to test every option on your own.
He is right to emphasize the value of action, trial and error and even good guesswork, however. Imagine how much more successful companies would be if the ideas their CEOs dream up (or grab from consultants they meet on airplanes) were actually tested in miniature before being mandated as new corporate strategy.
Oh yes, we see something work at competitor A and think we have to get into that as well. Prediction suggests if it worked for them (and we’re in the same business and market) it should work for us. Well, that isn’t always true obviously, but who wants to wait around for trials and testing if your competitor seems to have the jump?
Samsung may be seen as copying Apple to some extent but I think, if you look underneath, they’ve got plenty of ideas they’re trying out for themselves. If you’re in the same market, it’s likely that some of what you think up is going to look like some of what the competitor thinks up. But if you’re really innovating, you will absolutely be putting your own stamp on things at a faster pace than you could achieve simply by copying.
In a world where the strategic buzzword has become innovate (or die), the concept we’re struggling to articulate is exactly “antifragile” — using turbulence, complexity and challenge to get better.
So this is the underlying strategic word and concept to master — a word that has waited to be invented until the world is faced, as now, with the sort of intense, unpredictable challenges the word describes and positions our thinking to solve. It’s going to take some thinking and experimenting to grasp just how deep and far-reaching this concept will be and how far we can take ourselves with it, but this is the time to start.
Next week: Why do we miss ‘antifragile’ solutions?
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.