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Recovery, resilience and robustness – post pandemic, the trajectory of businesses has been rooted in these concepts. However, just as Taleb’s concept of ‘black swan’ was used to describe the pandemic in its early days, “antifragility" is another Taleb concept that will help businesses navigate out of it – using the crisis as a catalyst for growth and evolution. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better. As Franklin Roosevelt said, “A smooth sea never made a skilled sailor." The stormy seas (both literal and figurative) and confluence of the past year have helped leaders and their organisations hone and sharpen their vision, mission, strategy, tactics and operational processes. The manner of response to COVID and related and other crises was a revelation of culture and this was the biggest indicator of an organisation’s long term endurance.

Like the Hindu God Shiva, the ability to regularly absorb poison, regularly is a hallmark of good leadership, as well as to insulate the rest of the organisation and employees, to ensure that pain is absorbed at the time. I think that is a great allegory for organisational antifragility – the ability to not only recover from the aborption of poision but to convert it to nectar and grow from a crisis: agility; learnability; seizing opportunities; shrinking to grow and seizing opportunity in crisis and as a catalyst to get better.

By contrast, organisations did not have these attributes going into the pandemic cannot suddenly get these behaviours and build a culture overnight – these are organisations / businesses that rely on “business as usual" constructs and will flail (and possibly fail) in the face of exogenous stressors.

This is not an inert quality, but a mindset, and muscle to be consistently exercised and built, ready to deploy in the crisis – in order to make the most of a crisis. Like COVID, all crises may soon become endemic- we will be in a steady state of having to deal with crises which will require the use of the muscle. Climate change, deglobalisation or globalisation 2.0, the disruption wrought by frontier technologies like AI and ML – which are not “black swans" but in fact “grey rhinos" (massive, obvious threats that are largely ignored) will mean a continuous state of crisis, requiring the leader to consistently exercise this muscle – the base muscle is resilience and the stronger version of the muscle is antifragility. Antifragile leadership involves sighting grey rhinos, preparing well in advance, repositioning where required and catalysing and growing from them.

Agility is at the heart of antifragility. Agile leadership requires recalibration with context – Churchill the iconic war-time prime minister of the UK was voted out following World War II; and then voted back in. This is emblematic of the contextual debugging, amendment and resetting required of leadership in the dynamic environment.

Antifragility is a matter of conscious engendering and requires a culture to be consciously fostered. Accordingly, organisation that imbibe and inculcate process orientation, institutionalisation, investment in culture and larger organisation that have incorporated attributes of “startup mindset"- creativity, agility, learnability, speed (move fast, but don’t break things!) are ideally antifragile and will be like the mythical Hydra- growing two heads when one may be cut off- in the face of external shocks.

The culture of antifragility is in turn a culture of innovation- to build the culture of innovation means fostering one of a growth mindset, curiosity and humility. The humility to say “I don’t know" and then to dig deep for answers, encouraging and cultivating a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment as individuals, organisations and beyond.

Growth- particularly in the current global context will require also the right model combining standardisation and decentralisation – having a set of guardrails which are non-negotiatiable, but local adaptation and customisation is a form of antifragility and fleetfooted in the face of dynamic global changes.

Undergridding this, is the bedrock of purpose and values - Organisations and leaders that have invested in values and culture but also sought to remain agile can deal with disruptions and shocks – values remain constant, while strategy is dynamic. Organisations and their leaders need to have a clear answer regarding who they are in the marketplace of meaning. A purpose that goes beyond the here-and-now; the heat of the quarterly result but one of endurance. The pervasiveness and depth of the values and ethics organisations attribute that can help them withstand shocks. This will allow businesses to be “built to last" rather than “built to sell" - a mindset that is increasingly getting rewarded by institutional investors who are increasingly focussing on ESG which necessarily focus on the long term. Related to this is concept of a Promoter or Sponsor, which mindset does engender long-term, usually multigeneration value creation mindset, rather than a valuation – driven, valuation chasing one.

(The author recently spoke building antifragility through culture and leadership here).

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