How to Build Antifragile Organisations
Be like viruses and bacteria — embrace stressors and disruption.
Whenever we try to eliminate viruses and bacteria, it comes back stronger the next time — requiring a stronger antidote to eliminate it.
That which does not kill us makes us stronger.
— Freidrich Nietzsche
Things that Gain from Disorder
Certain organisms thrive in disorder and chaotic situations. Nassim Taleb coined the term “Antifragile” to describe this phenomenon.
- Different from robust and fragile — if fragility means breaking in chaos and robustness being immune to chaos, antifragile means thriving in chaos.
- Having limited downside and unlimited upside — a state whereby you can potentially gain huge benefits from sudden shocks to the environment with limited losses.
- Desiring volatility, uncertainty, disorder, and chaos — growth and progress is accelerated in such situations and environments.
Some examples of antifragility include:
- Startups — potential to grow into “unicorns” (unlimited upside) and failure is generally limited to the capital invested.
- Muscles — hypertrophy occurs when fibres of the muscle sustain damage or injury, after repairing the damaged fibres, the mass and size of muscles grow larger.
- Human psychology — through adversity and challenges, i.e. heartbreaks, failures, our minds have the potential to capitalise on adversities and come back stronger than ever.
There are several other examples, i.e. body immune system, bacteria, etc. but I hope you get the idea.
The Antidote to Black Swans
With the advancements in technology and the acceleration of digitalisation today, the environment is transforming at a much faster rate — resulting in higher occurrences of “Black Swans”, i.e. disruptive solutions.
I was in an environment which dealt with the VUCA situation rather well.
Here are three key lessons which I found useful in navigating today’s VUCA environment:
- Focus on the things that don’t change (Via negativa): we cannot predict what changes may come, but we know what’s unlikely to change, e.g. consumer’s demand for better experiences and services, and focus on those things.
- Disrupt internally and externally: constantly seek problems — the bigger, the better — to solve, because that’s where we can find opportunities for change and improvement. Frequent pitch sessions and hackathons were organised throughout the year to cultivate the mindset of embracing problems.
- Change and reorganise with the times: regardless of whether times are good or bad, the organisation structure is constantly updating to the environment. Company reorganisations were common to adapt.
Considering antifragility is the second-order effect of a disruption at the underlying layer, e.g. our cells killed by bacteria to boost our immune system in the long run, we can induce it by gradually exposing ourselves to disruption for our benefit, i.e. rapid growth.
I realised that these “disruptions” could be viewed as insights that help us to learn, improve and grow. Once we are able to change our perspective on VUCA and create a system that allows us to benefit from it, we’ll be seeking and embracing more of such situations.
An example would be the recent COVID-19 situation which led to major disruptions in various sectors, i.e. transportation, retail, etc. and a drastic change in consumer behaviour.
To the Antifragilist, this situation could pose a fantastic opportunity to start an online business where it would address the change in consumer’s demand for goods. In this case, taking a small risk could potentially yield a large reward.
In the above example, the underlying assumption is that consumers are constantly demanding convenience and better experiences (#1: focus on things that don’t change). You may have to disrupt your existing model (#2: disrupt internally) and repivot to the new normal (#3: change with the times) and forge ahead.
Down to the Individual
I apply the same principles to my personal life. Here are some of my approaches:
- Experiment often and make bold moves — through the lens of having little to lose and a lot to gain. Although I’ve had several past experiences which almost cost me my life, those are the also the ones that changed me the most — for the better.
- Eliminate the noise and distractions — focus on the core principles rather than the specific details. Principles and mental models are some of the things which stood the test of time and can be applied across industries — a worthwhile investment. Sometimes, it’s more about knowing what is irrelevant and what not to do that’s more important.
- Reinvent oneself often — sometimes, hard choices would have to be made to grow; just like how the caterpillar has to digest itself to grow parts of the butterfly. When I found that I wasn’t growing the way I intended in a particular environment, I had to make hard switches and sacrifices.
All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.
— Charlie Munger
The hydra is the prime example of antifragility. Slay one head, and two grows in its place. The more significant the disruption, the stronger it gets.
- Cultivate the mindset of seeking and embracing problems
- Focus on the things that don’t change and remove the distractions
- Make hard choices to reinvent your business/self to adapt to new circumstances.
In perpetual beta—playing at the intersection between digital technology and business.