Proactivity is the most delicate concept to understand of HEART. When it is not mistakenly opposed to reactivity or reaction, we often tend to see it as an exhaustive anticipation of risks in order to prepare for it and to make the most out of the problems that will arise. We often spend a lot of time quantifying the probability of these events, making supply calculations, and so on. But volatility and chance are not especially good candidates for exhaustive anticipation of what they have in store for us.
To get rid of these tedious calculations, it is enough to invoke Murphy’s law. Indeed, according to Edward A. Murphy Jr, a former aerospace engineer, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”. There is no point in trying to evaluate whether a problem is really likely or not. Let us assume it is going to happen. It is better to be ready to take advantage of hazards rather than to calculate if they will happen and with what intensity.
This way of thinking is very close to the concept of antifragile described by Nassim Taleb.
Also note that by spending less time on calculations and forecasts, we are spending less energy unsuccessfully trying to avoid events that are random anyway. We can then use this energy elsewhere!
What is antifragile?
Antifragile is the exact opposite of fragile, as one would have suspected. But of course, when we imagine the opposite of “fragile”, we think of something resistant, solid. But if we call fragile the negative response to hazard, we understand that resistance is not its opposite.
Take a very simple hazard: a fall. For example, an object reacts negatively to a fall if it breaks. This is what we commonly call being “fragile”. In this case, resistance and solidity are, in a way, the neutral reaction to this fall. To be solid is not to suffer anything in the face of a shock. So there is a lack of a concept describing the positive reaction to a difficulty, which is what Nassim Taleb chose to call antifragile. Our object would be antifragile if it became better after a fall.
It reminds me of the description of proactivity I was giving when I said it was about being able to make the most of every situation, even the most disastrous ones, and to create opportunities.
How does this help us be proactive?
HEART suggests the adoption of a proactive behaviour, but it is not easy to achieve with the simple definition of the concept. But if we consider that proactive is close to antifragile, then we can draw on the knowledge accumulated by Taleb on the subject.
Here is a small overview of ideas to achieve a certain degree of antifragility transposable to organizations.
- The first thing to do is not to avoid redundancy at all costs. We must avoid single paths, bottlenecks. For example, a being with only one heart would have an obvious source of fragility for heart problems. It is the same with a business, concentrating knowledge in the hands of the same person is dangerous. And this is just one example among others of non-redundancy. This principle is also found in highly available application architecture designs (Shards, Replica, Corum, etc.)
- In the same vein, we must avoid having a single decision-maker, who is very exposed to risks of influence trafficking (lobbying, corruption, etc.) This governance system is also very sensitive to errors since there is little, if any, catch-up mechanisms. When the sole decision maker is wrong, too bad, it is done. It is better to promote some form of decentralization in any decision-making. In addition to practicing collective intelligence and adhering to the famous saying “two heads are better than one”, groups are less permeable to outside influence or corruption.
- Diversity must be promoted as much as possible in all areas. If a whole is made up of subsets with different structures, it is antifragile in the face of more different types of unforeseen things, because there are more chances that one of the structures is well adapted to a certain type of unforeseen event. In biology, a species made up of individuals adapted to cold weather and other individuals perfectly capable of living in a very hot environment is more antifragile in the face of climate change than a species made up of a single type of individuals. This implies that antifragility of the whole does not prevent fragility of the subsets. Thus, a business with diverse activities should not seek to maintain those that are not viable.
- We must favour what is small. What is small is better adapted to the conditions of frugality and is generally able to move more quickly. What is big is more vulnerable to shocks, errors, hazards. Taleb takes as an example studies on buildings resistance to earthquakes. The highest towers are most likely to suffer from an earthquake. The work of Leonard Kohr of the University of Memphis in the United States and his disciple Ernst Friedrich Schumacher on the response of various entities to stochastic stress vectors according to their size could also be mentioned. Kohr and Schumacher summarize their observations by the now famous phrase “Small is beautiful“, picked up by many researchers including Taleb.
- But the simplest way to make an organization antifragile is also the most described in “Agile manuals”. Like an organism capable of being cured from a disease and then immunizing itself against it, organizations must be made self-learning. They must be able to correct their mistakes and guard against them. They do not have to anticipate all possible errors, but simply have a mechanism to adjust and improve and then not be sensitive to them (negatively). The Agile Manifesto describes this principle: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.” In the same way, two of the three pillars of Scrum favour this type of reaction: “Inspect & Adapt”; a caremony is even dedicated to this: the retrospective.
However, keep in mind that it is very difficult to be antifragile in the face of everything. Most of the times, the most antifragile things respond positively to many difficulties, but remain fragile in the face of certain hazards.