Antifragile

At the BPMNext conference in March, I am signed up to give a talk titled “Antifragile Systems for Innovation and Learning Organizations.”  The term “antifragile” comes from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.”  In this post I review the main concepts of the book.

Terms Enable Discussion

Taleb coins the term antifragile because no better word currently exists.  We all know the idea of fragile.  If you ask what the opposite of fragile is, the most common answer is robust or stable.  There is, however, another state that is even less fragile than this.

  • fragile – the quality that when disturbed has a propensity to break.  Kicking a fragile object around reduces or destroys its value.
  • stable, robust – the quality that when disturbed it remains the same.  Kicking a robust object has no effect on it at all.
  • antifragile  – the quality that when disturbed it improves.  Kicking an antifragile object actually makes it more valuable.

Sounds fine in theory, but do such things exist?  Surprisingly, they are all around us.  Biological systems are antifragile.  Ecosystems are as well.  Most importantly, human organizations are antifragile.

A forest is the easiest example to understand.  If a forest is protected from fires, it grows weaker.  To maintain the strength of a forest, you need to have regular, modest sized forest fires.  To maintain the strength of your muscles, you exercise them.  To train a football team, you make them face competitive situations.  Learning requires stressing the student to explore new situations.

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Is this a New Idea?

The general idea is not new.  For instance, we talk about stressful situations as being “character building”.  Why did character get built?  Because personality is antifragile. Douglas Adams, in his classic fiction series “The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” introduced us to a character named Lintilla who had a “Crisis Inducer” which was a watch-like device that would create an artificial crisis of selectable severity in order to keep the wits of the wearer sharp.  Management guru Tom Peters wrote a book called “Thriving on Chaos” in which he discusses organizations that thrive on the churn and turmoil around them.  It is common to suggest that an organization need occasional “shaking up” to keep it healthy.  In the book he highlights two ancient antifragile concepts: mithridatization (taking small doses of a poison to gain immunity) and hormesis (negative actions that actually protect you from something worse, e.g. chemotherapy).

However, in spite of a general sense, it has been difficult to talk about this because there really was no term to precisely label the concept.  I have used the term adaptive to describe such properties (see “Understanding what ‘Adaptive’ means“).  I have used the term ‘unpredictable’ to refer to situations which should be approached with an emergent process which might be unique to the situation.  What Taleb does is to demonstrate that there are cases were the act of predicting can actually cause the system to degrade.  Even if you could predict, you shouldn’t.

Taleb has done a great job of bringing the focus on a particular blind-spot that we all have.  Most of us suffer from what I call “enlightenment-bias”: we tend to think of organizations as machines.  But machines generally are fragile, while organizations generally are not.  Modeling an organization as a machine has a critical flaw when the model is not antifragile.

Irony: Antifragile Systems Degrade without Stress

The title of the book is stated in the positive (systems that gain from disorder) the real message is a negative one.  Simply put: antifragile systems crave stress, and if you withhold stress, they wither or become dangerously unstable.  While an antifragile system is able to readily accommodate modest perturbations, if you protect the system from those changes, attempting to provide a static environment, then the system becomes fragile and dangerous.

The policy of preventing all fires in a forest has had the disastrous consequence of indirectly causing far larger and more damaging fires that are harder to recover from.  This is ironic.  Taleb sees this irony all around us.  If you constantly take antibiotics, your immune system gets weak possibly allowing you to die from a minor but novel infection.  If you don’t exercise, your muscles and bones get weak, possibly causing much of the decline attributed to old age. His real area of interest is financial markets.

By protecting the financial markets from minor stresses, we allow it to become fragile and dangerous.  Much of the policies of modern management and politics is to eliminate stress from the system.  His favorite whipping boy, Alan Greenspan, is blamed for ironically causing the recent financial crisis because of his actions to keep the national economy stable.

Notable Quotes

  • it is quite a myth that planning helps a corporation
  • Fragile needs to be predictive in it’s approach, and conversely, predictive systems cause fragility.
  • We understand child proofing, but not forecaster-hubris proofing
  • You can’t predict in general, but you can predict that those who rely on predictions are taking more risks, will have some trouble, perhaps even go bust.
  • Never mistake “absence of evidence” for “evidence of absence”
  • Machines are harmed by low-level stressors (material fatigue) while organisms are harmed by the absence of low-level stressors (hormesis)
  • Allesandro Pluchino showed how adding a certain number of randomly selected politicians can improve the functioning of the parliamentary system.
  • Stability is a Time Bomb
  • Small is more antifragile than large.  In fact the large is doomed to breaking.
  • Nature loves small error, humans don’t — hence when you rely on human judgement you are at the mercy of a mental bias that disfavors antifragility.
  • He who has never sinned is less reliable than he who has sinned once.
  • Stochastic Resonance – adding noise to a system to make it perform better.
  • Evolution works because of antifragility.  If nature ran the economy, it would not continuously bail out its living members to make them live forever.
  • Medical errors kill between 3 and 10 times as many people as automobile accidents in the US.
  • A modern Stoic Sage: someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into imitation, and desire into undertaking.
  • The teleological fallacy: never ask people what they want, or where they want to go, or where they think they should go, or, worse, what they think they will  desire tomorrow.  The strength of the computer entrepreneur Steve Jobs was precisely in distrusting market research and focus groups — those based on asking people what they want — and following his own imagination.  People don’t know what they want until you provide them with it.

Stability can be a Time Bomb?

My principle interest is in how these ideas relate to organizations.  It is important to understand the nature of antifragility.  In the coming posts, I hope to touch on the following ideas:

  • Successful planning might eliminate uncertainty from the daily life of an organization, but does this expose the organization to greater problems when an unexpected event occurs?
  • The very goal of BPM is to smooth out the business process so that it happens the same way every time, but how does this effect its ability to respond when it needs to do something different?
  • Striving for stability not only makes an organization fragile, it also hides the evidence of problems until it is too late to respond.
  • What does it really mean support an antifragile organization?  Can the system support work, and at the same time exercise the ability to cope with unanticipated events?
  • How does this relate to the Agile approach to developing products.  Agile appears non-intuitive to those with enlightenment-bias, but is it exactly the right thing for antifragile organizations?

In short, how can we leverage the idea of antifragile to build strong information systems that support strong organizations?

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5 Responses to Antifragile

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