By Dan Fine, Management Consultant at Hive Business
Something scary is happening to young people in the West. At home, school and university they are taught to be fragile versions of themselves, and three fallacies are responsible: what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good and evil people.
So says the social psychologist Jonathan Haidht, who applies moral psychology to business ethics and has co-founded organisations that promote the value of productive disagreement. In his book The Coddling of the American Mind he raises an idea called antifragility.
It was developed by the former trader Nassim Taleb, who says individuals and groups improve themselves when they find untapped and unexpected capabilities in moments when they are pushed almost to breaking point. He coined the term antifragile because this is not simply resilience, it’s about emerging better than you were before. Uncertainty, the subject of Taleb’s five highly influential books, is always the crucial ingredient.
Antifragility provides a theoretical framework on which to hang the un-PC intuition that children need the freedom to roam and take risks to develop, that students need to be exposed to challenging ideas and arguments to become productive members of society, and that entrepreneurs need to be comfortable with failures if they are going to make it.
When leaders aim to make their organisations antifragile, it means they are trying to make sure failures always ultimately increase capability. That’s easy to say, but how do you make it happen? Is there a methodology to it? Yes. Here is what we do at Hive: we accept failures as a fact of life, study them and thereby create a better business.
The key thing is our culture — we praise the ability to have frank and open discussions around failures and, like Haidht advocates, we promote the value of productive disagreements internally and to our clients. Guided by Harvard professor Amy Edmonson’s “strategies for learning from failure” we categorise failures into three groups:
- Preventable failures in predictable operations
- Unavoidable failures in complex systems
- Intelligent failures at the frontier
Mistakes in the first category are procedural cock ups that shouldn’t happen but do given human error and the daily vicissitudes of running a business. In a dental practice they would comprise things like not closing a sale with the right treatment plan when the patient is ready and willing. These situations are unambiguous: your team should be able to quickly acknowledge that something went wrong and propose how to avoid the same mistake again.
The second category of mistakes are less blameworthy and more praiseworthy. Complex environments are less predictable so there are bound to be failures, and these mistakes are therefore viewed with an open-minded, neutral attitude. You are increasing your knowledge bank and thereby your capacity. In the way that marketing campaigns trial different messages to segmented audiences, you can’t know what outcome you’re going to get in complex environments, but it’s all good so long as you take the learnings and then integrate them into the business.
The third category is entirely praiseworthy: not only could you not know these failures were going to happen, you’ve created genuinely new knowledge for your organisation. Activities at the frontier produce insights that are invaluable beyond your horizon and they may not be fully understood at first but should lead to gear changes in your business’s evolution.
You are going to make all three types of failures, the question is will you capitalise on the knowledge they create? Get in touch if you’d like to know more about how to create a culture of antifragility in your business.