“We have no idea what to expect!”, “The world will never be the same!”, “It’s the end of the world as we know it!” (for about half of you the chorus of a famous R.E.M. song just popped into your head). Simple phrases that we hear every day from colleagues, friends, family, and the media. And yes, some of it is true, but us homo sapiens are a particularly resilient and innovative species that have survived massive shocks throughout history.
This is not an article based on years of expertise, or an in-depth knowledge of pandemics, or even trying to foretell the future. It is a viewpoint on the future of organisations formed through taking inspiration from several very clever people and organisations that have been so generous as to share their thoughts in person, in books and articles.
In his 2010 book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduces the concept of Antifragility. He introduces the book: “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”. It is a brilliant book well worth reading.
Probably the most obvious and intuitive example of antifragility is found in human muscles. To grow muscles, we need to hurt them, impose stress and shock. Conversely if we lie in front of the TV for the entire duration of lock-down, binge watching Tiger King on Netflix, our muscles will weaken. Antifragile systems need shocks to improve. The question then becomes - how do we create organisations that are antifragile? Though Taleb briefly touches on the subject, he does not offer direct advice but rather a few thoughts:
- Antifragility in business is creative tinkering.
- Fragility in our systems is often increased by incentive schemes and other mechanisms which motivate people to take hidden risks, even when they know about them (think of those quarterly performance bonuses).
- Antifragility is fostered in systems that embrace experimenting yet avoid too-big-to-fail dynamics.
- Fragile systems hate mistakes because they carry so much potential for danger.
- Antifragile systems, however, love mistakes. After all, they are a natural by-product of experimentation.
The main takeaway from the book in the context of this discussion: we need to take the lessons learnt from before and throughout this pandemic to engineer our organisations to be antifragile and to emerge stronger than ever.
FYI - during and after the 2008 financial crisis, companies that were in the top fifth in performance were about 20 percentage points ahead of their peers. By 2016 their lead had grown to 150 percentage points.
In Part 2 of this series we have a look at changing priorities and how it affects our organisations’ identity.
Written by Nico Prinsloo