Antifragility: Embracing Reality and Ensuring Aliveness

In Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduces antifragility:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile.

Taleb then distinguishes between the fragile, robust, and antifragile (the “Triad”):

The fragile wants tranquility, the antifragile grows from disorder, and the robust doesn’t care too much.

And, Taleb then advances that:

By grasping the mechanisms of antifragility we can build a systematic and broad guide to non-predictive decision-making under uncertainty in business, politics, medicine, and life in general.

The Fragility-Antifragility Spectrum

Fragility and antifragility correlate with potential harm or gain from disorder — or degrees of volatility/stability, uncertainty/certainty, complexity/simplicity, and ambiguity/clarity (VUCA/SCSC).

Fragile entities are penalized (or suffer) and antifragile entities benefit (or grow) from exposure to disorder. Because antifragile entities gain from disorder, they love a measure of disorder.

Fragility and antifragility are degrees on a spectrum (relative terms, not quite absolute) and are properties of an entity relative to a given situation, limited to a specific source (of disorder) and range of exposure (or amount of stress, that is, eustress vs destress, which causes shock, and possibly trauma).

To faithfully interpret antifragility, we must distinguish between the fragile, the anti-agile, the robust, the agile, and the antifragile. The anti-agile and agile focus on change and the fragile and antifragile focus on disorder. The agile embraces change by adapting while the anti-agile resists change. The antifragile embraces disorder by evolving while the fragile resists disorder.

Adaptation is about “fitness to,” which commonly occurs in the moment, while evolution is about “unfolding from,” which commonly occurs over time. Furthermore, evolution generally follows from adaptation, where adaptation is more about confronting and responding to reality while evolution is more about embracing and gaining from reality.

Agility (and Resilience)

Because agility is more about adapting and responding to and not necessary gaining from change, we don’t merely seek change to adapt. Thus, agility generally equates normalcy with a degree of equilibrium — stability, certainty, simplicity, and clarity (SCSC) — and embracing a degree of change.

Note: Robust sustains or endures and Resilience resists and stays the same. Robustness is more "spatial" and Resilience is more "temporal". Resilience may include "improving" but minimally "sustaining", and may even be combined with robustness. The *big* thing is that antifragility does not look at "normality" in the same way as robust/resilient/agile.

From an agility (and resilience) perspective, what do we need in order to preserve a degree of equilibrium and be open to a degree change?

Consider:

  • Are things stable enough, certain enough, simple enough, and clear enough so that we can preserve a degree of equilibrium and progress towards our intentions (perhaps towards realizing value)?
  • Are things stable enough, certain enough, simple enough, and clear enough so that we can be open to a degree of change as we progress towards our intentions?
  • Preserving a degree of equilibrium and being open to a degree of change ensures we continue to adapt and respond.

Focusing on these types of considerations exemplifies an agility mindset, worldview, values, principles, practices, and techniques.

Agility has its roots in expressions such as “embrace change” (Kent Beck) and “inspect and adapt” (Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland) with the overall intent of continuous responsiveness (John Boyd and Chet Richards) in a world where “sustainable competitive advantage” (Michael Porter) empowers us to confront “future shock” (Alvin Toffler).

Antifragility

Because antifragility is more about evolving and gaining from and not merely responding to disruption, we seek disruption to evolve. Thus, antifragility equates normalcy with a degree of turbulence — volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity (VUCA) — and embracing a degree of disruption, more VUCA.

Note: Normalcy or normal may even be equated with the absence of a “traditional normal" of equilibrium. Normalcy is what we associate as common and seek, etc.

From an antifragility perspective, what do we need to preserve a degree of turbulence and seek a degree of disruption?

Consider:

  • Are things volatile enough, uncertain enough, complex enough, and ambiguous enough so that we can preserve a degree of turbulence and progress towards our intentions (perhaps towards realizing value)?
  • Are things volatile enough, uncertain enough, complex enough, and ambiguous enough so that we can seek a degree of disruption as we progress towards our intentions?
  • Preserving a degree of turbulence and seeking a degree of disruption ensures we continue to evolve and gain (“benefit from shocks” and “grow from disorder”).

Focusing on these types of considerations exemplifies an antifragility mindset, worldview, values, principles, practices, and techniques.

Antifragility has its roots in expressions such as “embrace randomness” (disorder/chaos) and “evolve” (Nassim Nicholas Taleb) with the overall intent of fostering continuous transformation (Crawford Holling) in a world where “transient competitive advantage” (Rita Gunther McGrath) empowers us to confront “present shock” (Douglas Rushkoff).

Triad and Map of the World

Taleb elaborates his thoughts using the “Triad” and the “Map of the World”. The Triad classifies things into the categories of fragile, robust, and antifragile. The Map of the World organizes subjects in relation to the Triad. Thus, an item, within a given subject, may be categorized and we can consider what we need to do to change its condition.

Together, Taleb’s Triad and Map of the World integrate the various aspects of antifragility around the notion of parts (individuals) progressively (collectives) forming wholes (enterprises).

Broadly and deeply exploring Taleb’s Triad and Map of the World leads to the notion that an antifragile enterprise consists of stakeholders who embrace reality and do not merely confront it, and stakeholders who ensure their aliveness by evolving form reality and not merely adapting to it. An antifragile enterprise is completely dynamic, at all levels and in every way.

This is the essence of antifragility — a delicate dance between embracing reality and ensuring aliveness.

Embracing Reality: Seeking Opportunities to Thrive

Embracing reality involves having an empirical worldview (empirical over theoretical) and using heuristics (imperfect rules of thumb) regarding external dynamics between stakeholders and reality.

Consider entrepreneurs who experiment with options to confront disorder. They are always exploring and seeking opportunities to enable them to thrive; when they encounter disorder and sufficiently and reasonably struggle (that is, experience sufficient and reasonable degrees of stress), they consider their options and experiment, making small and reversible errors that cause acute stress, distributed over time, with ample recovery time, to enable them to learn and grow.

Ensuring Aliveness: Seeking Experiences to Evolve

Ensuring aliveness involves having an essential worldview (minimal over elaborate) and using heuristics (imperfect rules of thumb) regarding the internal dynamics between stakeholders.

Consider adventurers who are small, non-specialized, and independent. They are always exploring and seeking experiences from which to evolve; individually, they don’t specialize and are very independent, and, collectively, they don’t compromise by specializing or becoming dependent, instead becoming redundant and sharing power.

Embracing Reality and Ensuring Aliveness

Antifragiliy is beyond agility. Agility and antifragility are distinct paradigms, each with a unique mindset, worldview, values, principles, practices, and techniques.

The essence of antifragility is a delicate dance — at the antifragility edge — between embracing reality and ensuring aliveness, where disorder or stress is at the intersection.

Individual Antifragility

Individuals embrace reality and ensure their aliveness via their mindsets, questions, leadership, conversations, relationships, and behaviours.

Individual antifragility integrates the following, among other perspectives:

Collective Antifragility

Collectives embrace reality and ensure their aliveness as groups that work with dysfunction and conflict while organizing into more short-lived and more temporary groups (teams via teaming) as well as more long-lived and more permanent groups (communities).

Collective antifragilty integrates the following, among other perspectives:

Enterprise Antifragility

Enterprises, composed of individuals and collectives, embrace reality and ensure their aliveness through independent lifecycles (adaptive cycles) that are interdependent (panarchy). Enterprise antifrality leverages Crawford Stanley Holling’s Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems.

The Antifragility Edge

The Antifraglity Edge is the practical how-to guide for
embracing disruption and thriving at the edge . . .