Hoping For the Worst


Most effective decision-making approaches seek to identify risks and to create some mitigation strategies. But what if you could design a solution so you actually do better under worsening conditions.  This is part of the premise behind the concept of “Antifragility” introduced by Nassem Taleb who also gave us “The Black Swan” concept. (A difficult to predict event that has catastrophic consequences). 


When we develop complicated systems with lots of interdependent parts we create greater probabilities that failure will occur. So, we create additional systems and processes to raise the level of resilience and robustness. Taleb draws a distinction between resilience and antifragility. Resilience allows you to absorb the shock and hopefully stay at the same level.  Antifragility allows you to actually get stronger. For example, in a financial crisis the banking system responds with lots of measures to minimize the damage. For an IT start up an economic downturn may lead to new product developments and innovative delivery systems that allow the company to emerge stronger. The banking system is Ideally designed to absorb the blow and stay in business while the IT start-up could be designed to leverage greater uncertainty leading to a growth in the business.


Understanding what makes our situation more fragile is a key starting point to designing a better solution. We often don’t clearly see how fragile our situation might be and therefore don’t proactively move towards more antifragile solutions.  Taleb uses the example of two brothers in London. One is a middle manager in his fifties who has been with an established bank for many years.  The other brother is an independent taxi driver whose income is dependent on the number of passengers he is able to carry each day.  With a steady paycheck and seniority at a large institution the banker brother would seem to be in the more secure position.  However, this brother is just one downsizing away from being out of a job and given his narrow range of experience and age he may find it difficult to find similar employment.  The taxi brother faces more risk on a daily basis but has more options and control as he can pursue more potential customers each day. A solution or situation that can be severely damaged by a single event should always be a concern.


Often times we create fragility with an insistence on tweaking our solution to perfection as we push for the optimal solution.  We also create fragility if we become over reliant or over confident in our ability to predict the future. Antifragility is more about being positioned to pursue multiple paths rather than seek alignment around one.  It has been noted that many of the elements of a successful strategy can be the same elements of a failed strategy. You can do everything right and be taken down by forces no one could see coming and that were completely outside of your control. 


To build “antifragility” into our solutions also requires seeing a benefit in the hardships and disappointments.  In general, if we are trying to meet a great challenge we can expect a rocky ride. Effective leaders need to know when and where to cushion the ride and when and where to allow their teams to explore experiences outside their comfort zone. The desire is for the team to develop attitudes and competencies that help them to see opportunities when dark clouds gather.  The perception of too many institutional cushions or safeguards can create vulnerabilities that we don’t see and fail to create people who can anticipate and respond when the worst happens.