By Nick Morgan
In his new book, a sequel to the hugely successful ‘The Black Swan’ (2007), Nassim Nicholas Taleb frames the concept of ‘antifragile’.
Taleb’s concept is simple and his argument is convincing – some organisations collapse in a crisis, others genuinely benefit from them. The ability to thrive in adversity (but ethically and never at the expense of others) is the hallmark of his ‘antifragile’ concept. His simplest example, and one of the most powerful images in the book, is of fire – a fragile candle will be extinguished by a gentle wind, but an ‘antifragile’ flame will grow in the wind, spread and burn more fiercely.
Why is this valuable? In the current socioeconomic climate, the desire for resilience has never been stronger. It is incumbent upon organisations to identify the threats they face, and rehearse simulated crises based on these threats in preparation for the worst day (that hopefully never comes). Looking through his lens of ‘antifragility’, I think Taleb would recognise this process.
One of his central tenets is that organisms which regularly face adversity (and survive) become resilient, and hence develop ‘antifragility’. There is a Darwinian element to this idea, but for us it is the recognition that repeat exposure to volatility (or stressors, as he calls them) builds resilience. Organisations can do exactly the same within the controlled environment of a crisis simulation exercise, where they expose their processes, infrastructure and (most importantly) their people, to a range of stressors.
Crucially though, there must be a clear distinction between exercising to build the ‘muscle memory’ of action and procedure, and exercising to stress test the potential weaknesses of an organization, and having identified them, apply lessons learned. There is significant benefit in ensuring business procedures are rehearsed. But valuable as it is, effective resilience is not solely defined by ‘antifragility’. Repeat exposure to the known threats and expected stressors does not prepare an organisation for the ‘Black Swan’ event. ‘Antifragility’ is instead the byproduct of repeated exposure to unexpected stressors, and the adoption (sometimes by necessity) of business process and procedures that are adept at running effectively under the most difficult circumstances.
I don’t think that ‘antifragile’ is a new idea, but it is perhaps a different and interesting term for a form of resilience, as we know and understand it. It is vitally important for organisations to identify specific weaknesses, but it is equally vital that rehearsal exercises test the principle behind these weaknesses, not simply a run-through of expected traumas, in order to create ‘anti-fragility’.
Taleb’s ‘antifragile’ is a fascinating read that takes a wonderfully wide view of the world. His selection of examples from classical mythology to modern day Wall Street trading is as effective as it is interesting and from a crisis management professional’s point of view, the idea that exposure to disorder breeds greater resilience, is what really strikes home.