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When we say we need better systems, what are we talking about?

Fragile systems break easily. That’s the last thing we want from our businesses, banks, buildings, vehicles, bridges, supply chains, water and waste systems, or the electricity grid. Clearly, we don’t want fragile systems.

But when we think about how these critical systems should be (that is, enduring), we usually think something not-fragile would be robust (not breaking no matter what happens), or resilient (capable of being restored quickly if it does break). However, focusing only on robustness or resilience can be a limiting frame. In reality, everything breaks eventually and we need ways of adapting when random events cause systems to fail. And staying the same is not how evolution happens. If all our effort goes into avoiding systems breaking, we can miss opportunities for making them better. Instead of trying for only robustness of resilience, we should focus more attention on the real opposite of fragile, (improving under stress), or as Nassim Taleb put it, being antifragile.

What does it mean to be antifragile?

Something antifragile can be damaged and become stronger than before. One example is people who go through a major setback or failure in their lives, but return stronger and reach greater levels of success than ever before. People who have been through this kind of painful growth experience will always tell you their greatest failure was also the source of their greatest learning and made them who they are today. Ray Dalio is a person like this, who says he has even come to enjoy problems and failures, because of the learning they bring that has helped him evolve to become better at what he does.

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How does antifragile relate to robust or resilient?

Nassim Taleb put fragile at one end of a spectrum, with antifragile at the other end as the opposite of fragile, and robust in the middle. On this scale, resilient would sit near the middle with robust, because both mean not changing from the starting state. On the fragile end of the range, a single extreme event can cause a fragile object, person, or system to be destroyed beyond repair; it becomes much worse off than it was before the stressful event. On the antifragile end, a major failure can be the key to a huge breakthrough, bringing essential learning and innovation, causing the antifragile person or system to become much better off than it was before the stressful event. On one end of the spectrum, stress produces negative change, on the opposite end stress produces positive change. In the middle, stress produces no change. Robust people or systems show no sign of an impact, and resilient ones are like a foam ball; they absorb an impact and it affects them, but they bounce right back to how they were as soon as the pressure goes away.

Robustness and resilience are important, and we should not ignore them as ways of making systems strong. But it is impossible to have all relevant information about potential risks, meaning we cannot predict every failure. In this century more than ever before we are starting to realize the scale of unpredictability in world events, and the fragility of our systems with respect to impacts that catch us unprepared. As we work to strengthen our critical systems under challenging new conditions, we must embrace the lessons that come from failures and breakdowns. We must go beyond robust and resilient to focus on always finding ways of learning and improving, ways of becoming more antifragile.

Questions? Key points I missed? Share below in the comments — I look forward to continuing the conversation with you.

This is the first of a series of articles on:

#innovation #technology #entrepreneurship #intrapreneurship #resilience #antifragile #energy #systems

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NOTE, all statements and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent in any way the position or opinion of Worley or any other employee or affiliate of Worley.