One of the business magazines that I subscribe to recently posted its top five list of the best business books of 2013. One of the books was Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who is also the author of one of the most thought-provoking books of recent years, The Black Swan.
In the Black Swan, Taleb made a convincing case that “Black Swans” i.e., large, improbable and highly consequential events are both unpredictable and, in many walks of life, deterministic of key outcomes. This was an unsettling notion for many CEOs (and some strategy practitioners), as it suggested that classical economic-driven planning efforts are at best misleading and, in some scenarios, are useless.
Antifragile is a logical follow-on to The Black Swan and suggests that we must learn how to be less vulnerable to randomness and volatility and become “antifragile,” that is, poised to take advantage of stress, errors and changes. This is tricky to do, because if we do too much to eliminate volatility (such as take frequent steps to eliminate small forest fires), we can make things more fragile (in the forest fire example make the “black swan” large forest fire disastrous).
So, the key question is, how can a company develop a strategy that allows it to be antifragile? We suggest several areas to focus on which include, but are not limited to:
- Invest in process-based competencies that allow you to quickly and flexibly respond to changes in your core markets, and don’t be afraid to outsource activities that are truly noncore;
- Establish the right filters to stay in front of competitor and customer data, and be prepared to act on the data; and,
- Understand and scrutinize the data thoroughly.
This last point on data is a critical one, particularly in this age of “big data.” What may seem like an acceptable conclusion based on a first glance at data may, upon doing some deeper, second-order thinking, not be such a good idea. Taleb gives a flippant, but interesting, example of this in Antifragile, in which he asks if you would be comfortable if I told you we were going to leave your Grandma in a room at an average temperature is 70 degrees for the next two hours while you go out. Many folks would say “yes” to this, but if you dug deeper and learned that I would set the temperature in Grandma’s room at zero degrees for the first hour and 140 degrees for the second hour, you may think differently (and not have a Grandma when you get back).
None of these suggestions are easy to do, as they require folks to think differently and, perhaps, in opposition to a company’s well-established cultural norms. A little bit (or a lot of) discomfort in the strategy development process that allows a company to be more antifragile, however, could pay great dividends down the road.