Back in April of 2013, John Hagel wrote a post titled how to work through stress and making “Black Swans” work for you—Edge Perspectives with John Hagel: Getting Stronger through Stress: Making Black Swans Work for You—while you might think the title is going to lead into an article about how the everyday and occasional stresses of life and work can be used to make a stronger team, it’s not. However, what the article is about is far more important that dealing with stress—it’s about dealing with disaster.
Hagel’s article is based on Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s books and I’ll warn you now the article is long. Excellent, but long. However if you get through the entire article you’ll be left with some insights that can be applied right now to your business that could help you weather a disaster. The first point to accept is that there is no “preventing disaster” in Taleb’s world, there is only accepting the inevitability that no matter what, disaster will strike. In fact you’re probably sitting in front of one of the best examples for “disaster will happen” right now—your computer.
Techies like to say computer hard drives have only two conditions: failed and going to fail. The standard mechanical hard drive is a miracle of modern engineering. The little magnetic arm hovers less than a millimeter over metal platters spinning at thousands of revolutions a minute. With all these moving parts it’s amazing how long hard drives actually last. While new motion-sensing technologies help make drives less prone to damage if jostled, they aren’t perfect, stuff happens over time. Even the solid state drives (SSDs) like in Apple’s MacBook Air models has a known and finite lifespan. SSDs have a fixed number (a very, very large number) of read-write cycles before they need to be replaced. Given that the hard drive in your computer will fail, not “if” but “when”, what do you do about it? Do you work on trying to build a better hard drive? Do you commission studies on hard drives? No, you have backups. You use software and services to regularly back up the files and software on your computer. You know you can’t entirely prevent disaster, but you can easily mitigate the impact of the disaster.
Now, are you following the same practice in your business? You know that people will eventually leave (voluntarily or not), so are you pragmatically trying to prevent that as long as possible while also have plans for what happens if a key person leaves?
Disaster as Opportunity
When something bad happens, something that could up end (or does up end) your business, do you try to return to the status quo or do you stop and think about how you can adapt to the new reality post-crisis? Disasters are a chance to hit the reset switch. Needing to take a step backward might not be a problem because you might gain perspective on how the disaster happened and what you can do differently because of it. It’s like the previous post here Lead Us Into Failure, failure is an option. Both Hagel and Taleb praise the experimenter, the technician, the person who gets things done because these are the people who are always experimenting, learning from what doesn’t work, and just doing it differently (and likely better) the next time. Theories are great, theories born from experiments are better. In actuality, theories that haven’t been tested by experimentation are often really no more than hypotheses, if you don’t test it out, you just don’t know if it will work.
Consider Adaptability as a Value
Throughout the article the term “antifragile” is used to describe institutions, ideas, and systems that stand the test of time (and disaster) and remain in place. These could be very simple ideas or complex systems that have adaptability and redundancy built in (there is a saying among computer folks that one copy of something isn’t a backup, it takes two or more copies to be a real backup). The lesson from the article isn’t to fear disaster or to ignore it. You can prepare for disasters, but you can’t always (maybe ever) prevent them, but you can adapt to the aftermath of a disaster by fixing what’s broken, getting rid of things that might have led to the problem and becoming a stronger and adapted and evolved organization in the process. Survival of the fittest is really the measure of a species being able to adapt and survive the best under changing and challenging conditions. It’s not the strongest, it’s the most able to adapt and change to changing conditions beyond its control.
That sounds like a pretty good plan for companies as well.