Antifragile — Becoming stronger with failure

Tom Connor
Jan 30, 2019 · 4 min read

Antifragile. A thought provoking concept developed by Nassim Taleb in a book by the same name.

Photo by Netaly Reshef from Pexels

It describes a system that becomes stronger with failure, more resilient and improved the more it is stress tested.

An antifragile way of life is all about finding a way to gain from the inevitable disorder of life. To not only bounce back when things don’t go as planned, but to get stronger, smarter, and better at continuing as a result of running into this disorder.

At a high level there are several principles that allow you to embrace antifragility

  • Stick to simple rules
  • Build in redundancy and layers (no single point of failure)
  • Resist the urge to suppress randomness
  • Make sure that you have your soul in the game
  • Experiment and tinker — take lots of small risks
  • Avoid risks that, if lost, would wipe you out completely
  • Don’t get consumed by data
  • Keep your options open
  • Focus more on avoiding things that don’t work than trying to find out what does work
  • Respect the old — look for habits and rules that have been around for a long time

Writes Taleb:

Negative knowledge (what is wrong, what does not work) is more robust to error than positive knowledge (what is right, what works).” Said another way, what worked for Richard Branson or Steve Jobs may or may not work for you, it’s hard to tell. But it’s very likely that what doesn’t work for any entrepreneur won’t work for you either.

John Carmac writes about how the application of antifragile principles allow you to be much better at generating ideas and problem solving

  1. Antifragile systems are — by definition — able get the upside but are not affected by the downside. That means, we need to be able to get the initial idea high and the motivation that comes with it.
  2. Failure events must end up making our system stronger. Meaning when an idea fails it needs to make the overall system better.

Taking this further to what an antifragile system might look like:

  1. You are working on a problem and you get an idea and with it the initial idea high
  2. You should instantly try to defeat your idea — think of all the ways it could not work, test it out, put it under stress
  3. If the idea survive the brutal scrutiny then it has legs for further investigations or implementation
  4. If the idea is implemented and it works then that’s great
  5. If the idea fails the scrutiny or implementation you can quickly move on to the next idea without feeling the lows because you haven’t obsessed or talked about it i.e. it’s not your pet idea.
The Hydra grows two heads for every one you cut off… (credit)

The concept is also explored in a by Barry O;Reilly in his brilliant article — Optimize to be Wrong, not Right in which he describes set based concurrent engineering principles of product development

This system and strategy embraces the principle of optionality. The majority of options will turn out to be bad options but the point is that those options are now visible as such. This means they can be abandoned before we commit major financial, time or emotional investment in them. If it becomes clear that the investment is not going in our desired direction, we still gain valuable information for that investment plus we’ve narrowed our cone of uncertainty.

Accepting that the majority of your ideas and/or methods aren’t going to work out as expected is liberating, but more importantly it’s advantageous. Yet, counterproductively, the majority of business organizations, teams and individuals resist the reality of the world, seeking certainty before making a move. Even worse, most still believe that the scope, time and budget served up by their Industrial-Age governance process is a proven approach to predicting success. If anything, they invest more time, money and resources refining and refining these business cases.

People tend to forget that the measure of progress for innovation is not how many “good” ideas you validate, but actually how many you invalidate quickly and inexpensively. Not over-investing in ideas and/or methods with little or no traction frees up investment and time to pursue alternatives based on valuable information we obtain from invalidated experiments. This optionality is what helps us all make better decisions when dealing with conditions of extreme uncertainly, which is of course inherent in any innovation activity.

Optionality works on negative information, reducing the space of what we do by gaining knowledge of what does not work. For that we need to pay for negative results. The information collected through broad experimentation helps to narrow the cone of uncertainty, and informs our next best step, action or newly discovered options. The more options you have, the more you are able to explore different opportunities, meaning you can quickly test a variety of ideas without investing in an entire product launch and committing to it too early.

Counterintuitively, for most organizations the management of unpredictable innovation requires providing certainty of the results. High-performance organizations crave unpredictable results, but certainty in the management of innovation.

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