by Judith Curry
Forget resilience — its about thrivability.
The theme of a recent post was Forget Sustainability — It’s About Resilience. This post takes this topic one step further – to thrivability.
A contrarian view on resilience
John Hagel has post entitled A contrarian view on resilience. Excerpts:
In a world of growing uncertainty and mounting performance pressure, it’s understandable that resilience has become a very hot topic. Everyone is talking about it and writing about it. We all seem to want to develop more resilience. But I’m going to take a contrarian position and suggest that resilience, at least as conventionally defined, is a distraction and perhaps even dangerous.
Resilience is used very loosely as a term, so there are many different definitions. But across all the talks given in that conference (and much of the literature I have read outside the conference) there is one common theme that can be reduced to a simple phrase: it is the ability to “bounce back” in the face of unexpected shocks. In engineering, it is the ability of a material or structure to resume its original size and shape after being deformed. In systems science, it is the ability to return to equilibrium, steady state or original function after a shock to the system. In social analysis, it is the capability of a social group to absorb disturbance and reorganize to retain essentially the same function structure and identity.
The common theme of “bouncing back” reveals an intensely conservative motivation – the key goal is to get back to the original state as quickly as possible. This conservatism is reinforced by the kinds of shocks that typically are often the subject of resilience conversations – natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, epidemics or terrorist attacks. In the face of such devastating threats, who wouldn’t want to get back to normal as quickly as possible?
But there’s a key assumption behind this conservatism that deserves to be made explicit and examined. The assumption is that the status quo is good, that stability and equilibrium are good.
In this context, the conventional view of “bounce back” resilience for enterprises is profoundly dangerous. It simply increases the ability of the institutional status quo to survive when conditions demand a fundamental transformation. It increases the gap between what we are doing and what we need to do. We don’t need to bounce back; we desperately need to move forward.
We need to find ways to harness the mounting pressure we are all experiencing and the unexpected events that seem to bombard us with increasing frequency so they become catalysts for more rapid transformation of our institutions and practices. In this context, “bounce back” resilience is a distraction and delays our movement forward.
Here’s what our institutional leaders need to develop:
An ability to grow, evolve and thrive over time in the face of short-term performance threats, including the ability to accelerate movement towards fundamentally new functionality and roles in our institutions.
Jean Russell has a very insightful post on Thrivability, that includes a brilliant diagram. Excerpts:
It isn’t enough to repair the damage our progress has brought. The unintended consequences of our efforts to improve quality of life for humans has repercussions and requires action. Yes, and. It is also not enough to manage our risks and be more shock-resistant. Now is not only the time to course correct and be more resilient. It is a time to imagine what we can generate for the world. Not only can we work to minimize our footprint but we can also create positive handprints. It is time to strive for a world that thrives.
Thrivability transcends survival modes, sustainability, and resilience. Thrivability embraces flow as the sources of life and joy and meaning, adds to the flow and rides the waves, instead of trying to nullify the effects. Each layer includes and also transcends the previous layer, expanding both interconnections as well as expanding system awareness as each layer hits limits and discovers that more forces are at work than can be explained within their purview. Also, this is not a progression, where you need to move through one before beginning another. You can have aspects of yourself or your organization in multiple places in the chart and movement within the chart can be from any one area to any other. It is not a spectrum of progression. It is a spectrum of viewpoint.
I’ve been meaning to do a post on Nicholas Taleb’s new book Anti-fragility, but it is a somewhat difficult book. Here I cite John Hagel’s post Getting stronger through stress: making black swans work for you. Excerpts:
Unanticipated events, especially extreme unanticipated events, can harm us or even destroy us. But they can also help us to grow and make us stronger.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has been consumed by black swans over three books: Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan and, now, Antifragile. Black Swans, in Taleb’s parlance, are “large-scale unpredictable and irregular events of massive consequence.’ The latest book focuses on approaches that enable us to thrive from high levels of volatility, and particularly those unexpected extreme events.
While Black Swans can have positive and beneficial impact (think of the invention of the computer and the Internet), many of the most well-known Black Swans (think of World War I, the stock market crash of 1929 or the terrorist attacks of 9/11) can have hugely detrimental effects, leading to massive suffering and death. Whether beneficial or detrimental, volatility and Black Swans can prove highly disruptive, leading the best laid plans of mice and men to go awry.
Our natural reaction to such volatility is to focus on refining prediction and risk models so that we can anticipate the events before they happen. Bluntly, Taleb argues in Antifragile that this is a fool’s errand, that the most profound and important of these unexpected events are by their very nature unpredictable. Even worse, he suggests that such efforts lead to a form of complacency and comfort that result in even more disruption when the unexpected events finally occur.
[Taleb] also attacks the conventional fall back options – building more resilience and robustness into systems. In Taleb’s terms, the resilient “resists shocks and stays the same” while robustness, never fully defined in this book, seems quite similar – indifference to unexpected events.Taleb views resilience and robustness as far too modest, and perhaps even dangerous.
The real opportunity, in Taleb’s view, is to learn and grow from volatility and unexpected events – not to return to where you were, but to become even better as a result of the exposure and experience. This is the essence of antifragility. Taleb is seeking to describe the properties of adaptive or evolutionary systems that become better and reach even higher levels of performance as a consequence of encountering and overcoming challenges. They are dynamic rather than static. They thrive and grow in new directions rather than simply sustain themselves. They actually need random events to strengthen and grow and they become brittle and atrophy in the absence of these random events.
He makes an important point: biological systems in nature are inherently antifragile – they are constantly evolving and growing stronger as a result of random events. In contrast, man-made systems tend to be fragile, they are the ones that have a hard time coping with random events. Taleb highlights a key paradox: our focus in modern times on removing or minimizing randomness has actually had the perverse effect of increasing fragility.
In this context, Taleb’s book is a rich source of insight into ways to harness randomness so that we can become better faster. The key is to systematically reduce the downside from randomness while at the same time increasing the potential upside.
Each of us can pursue a set of practices and strategies as individuals and as institutions to thrive in times of increasing uncertainty and more frequent Black Swans. In Taleb’s view, the end goal for any antifragile strategy is to achieve convexity. Taleb draws a core contrast between concave and convex strategies. The key question in assessing any strategy is whether it’s likely produce more benefits or harm as the intensity of a shock increases (up to a point). In other words, do you have more upside or downside? If the upside increases, you have positive asymmetry and a convex strategy. If the downside increases, you have negative asymmetry and a concave strategy – something to be avoided at all costs.
A selection of some of Taleb’s strategies:
(1) Pursue barbell approaches
[Pursue] a bimodal strategy: play it safe in some areas to mitigate the potential impact of negative Black Swans while at the same time taking a lot of small risks in other areas to enhance the benefit of positive Black Swans. Above all, he cautions against playing in the middle – we need to be both aggressive and paranoid in carefully selected areas while avoiding the complacency that the deceptive middle produces.
(2) Focus on options
As Taleb notes, “an option is what makes you antifragile and allows you to benefit from the positive side of uncertainty, without a corresponding serious harm from the negative side.” An option allows you to take the upside if you want but without the downside. Optionality – the availability of options – reduces the need to understand or know something.
(3) Be curious
Curiosity and its close cousin, discovery, like disturbances – disturbances create unexpected opportunities to learn more and help us to grow stronger in the face of challenges that we had not anticipated.
(4) Get out of your comfort zone
Far better for us to be uncomfortable – it makes us more alert to our environment, more willing to take risks and more humble about our knowledge and abilities.
(5) Focus on the edge
Taleb observes that “to this day I still have the instinct that the treasure, what one needs to know for a profession, is necessarily what lies outside the corpus, as far away from the center as possible.”
(6) Conduct lots of experiments and tinker
Taleb is a major advocate of experimentation and tinkering in contrast to theorizing. The key is to structure them so that they are small in potential harm and so that you can pursue many of them.
(11) Respect the old
Taleb argues that “antifragility implies . . . that the old is superior to the new. . . . What survives must be good at serving some (mostly hidden) purpose that time can see but our eyes and logical faculties can’t capture.” Only the antifragile survives and thrives; the fragile is ultimately exposed by time and history.
(12) Beware of wealth, debt and reputation
The key to antifragility is to have less to lose and more to gain; this will make it easier to love the mistakes that often result from experimentation and tinkering, rather than fearing them.
Bottom Line: Taleb is not at all concerned with surviving or “bouncing back” in times of increasing uncertainty. He wants us to do more. Far more. He wants us to find ways to thrive – to turn what may at first seem like challenges into opportunities to grow and learn so that we can become even better.
JC comments: I found Jean Russell’s diagram to be enormously insightful. Sustainability seems so 1990’s after digesting all this. This interview with Jean Russell addresses the differences/connections between sustainability and thrivability.
The ideas of thrivability and anti-fragility have also provoked me to return the recent post on Disaster economics, where I posted the question: Do disasters help local economies? It seems that the answer can be yes if this is viewed in context of thrivability.