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Big-Bang in Practice: Antifragility, Innovation and Leadership

November 10, 2019

As with much of my leadership blogging over the past ten-plus years, my approach has been to integrate what may at first appear to be unrelated events and concepts. However, we live in an inter-connected world, full of uncertainty, unpredictability and constant turmoil. The hope is that this post spurs your thinking and imagination. And as always, your personal insights are welcome.

Here we go!

We’ve become pretty accustomed to the daily deluge of incremental news bits about technological improvements to Apple’s products, some whiz bang release of a new Samsung smart phone, or the acquisition of a small, start-up by a giant multinational.

Is that real innovation?

Think back to Toyota which slowly but surely built its brand and reputation by adhering to the advice of quality and measurement guru W. Edwards Deming back in the 1950s. In more recent years, look at Hyundai’s and Kia’s incredible growth. Or Lenovo’s rise (which purchased IBM’s Think Pad several years ago).

As much as Toyota and Hyundai should be respected for their sustained commitment to improvement, innovation is much more than this. It’s easy to get caught up in the media hoopla about new digital platforms (aka the iPhone or Android), passed off as a big-bang disruption. Think back to (or read up on) the introduction of the internal combustion engine, the telephone, penicillin, or space flight. To put it in the vernacular, that was serious innovation that disrupted society for the better.

In his brilliant book What Technology Wants Kevin Kelly (who helped launched Wired magazine) notes that some of the major inventions and discoveries of the past actually were being worked on independently by different inventors. Here are some examples:

1) Theory of Evolution:
Yes, Charles Darwin gets the credit, but how people know that Alfred Russel Wallace developed the theory at the same time. Indeed, both men drew their inspiration from Thomas Malthus’s book on population growth.

2) The Telephone:
Alexander Bell received the accolades for this invention, yet Elisha Gray applied for the patent on the same day as Bell, February 14, 1876.

3) Sunspots, the Thermometer and the hypodermic Needle:
Galileo wasn’t the only person to discover sunspots (1611); three others also found them. Six inventors independently created the thermometer, and three invented the hypodermic needle.

Inventing and innovating are not done in isolation. While they may seem to follow a sequence of development, similar to organisms, as noted by Kelly, there are plenty of instances where inventions burst forth into society. And what is so striking from this process is that many people are actively involved simultaneously, though often independently.

Check out this TED talk with Kelly where he talks about how technology evolves.

Too much emphasis has been directed in the recent past towards incremental innovation. What propels economies and societies forward is innovation that eliminates the old and welcomes in the radically new–disruptive innovation. Think about the growing attention in the past year on AI—Artificial Intelligence,, ranging from paranoid commentaries to those embracing the possibilities about the benefits to society.

Enter Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, father of creative destruction as the impetus to creativity and innovation. As much as he was a weirdo, Schumpeter was viewed as the pre-eminent person on innovation’s role in the force underlying capitalism and economic progress. Creative destruction sounds scary but it’s what keeps our standard of living and quality of life improving. Snuff it out and society stands still.

How many of you would prefer to be writing long-hand instead of having the luxury of digitally erasing text you’ve just typed? How about maneuvering a horse-drawn buggy through manure-covered streets under gas-fired lamps? Or how about running to the out-house in the middle of the night for a mid-night pee? Yeah, indoor plumbing rocks.

You get the point.

Serious innovation is about destroying the old and introducing the new, while at the same time disrupting our mental models (our personal assumptions that affect how we see the world).

Recent incremental technology changes will eventually produce disruptive upheavals in the labour market and more generally within society. However, that shouldn’t be interpreted as being harmful. We have to shape what happens to benefit us collectively and individually. And to be successful in achieving this demands personal leadership. Each of us must learn how to adapt to and how to thrive in a world of unrelenting change. Be open to outcome, not attached to it.

Meet Nicholas Taleb, author of the best-seller The Black Swan and Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.

Taleb’s a bit of an oddball. But the guy’s brilliant and deep in his thinking about societal and economic effects resulting from change events. Antifragile, while not the lightest of reading, contains some really important insights on how people can strengthen their adaptability to change. Taleb uses the term “Fragilista” as someone who is fragile and non-adaptive. An “Antifragilista” is an individual who is able to quickly adjust to unpredictable events. Here are a few of Taleb’s thoughts:

You get pseudo-order when you seek order; you only get a measure of order and control when you embrace randomness.

Complex systems are full of interdependencies–hard to detect–and nonlinear responses.

Man-made complex systems tend to develop cascades and runaway chains of reactions that decrease, even eliminate, predictability and cause outsized events.

An annoying aspect of the Black Swan problem… is that the odds of rare events are simply not computable. We know a lot less about hundred-year floods than five-year floods.

Antifragility is not just the anti-dote to the Black Swan; understanding it makes us less intellectually fearful in accepting the role of these events as necessary for history, technology; knowledge, everything.

We didn’t get where we are today thanks to policy makes–but thanks to the appetite for risks and errors of a certain class of people we need to encourage, protect, and respect.

This last statement by Taleb is aimed at entrepreneurs and inventors, people who create jobs and who contribute to our collective standard of living by bringing new products and services to us. These risk-takers thrive in the face of adversity, getting up immediately when they fall down due to failure to move forwards. They don’t look back at failure but instead seek out and take advantage of new opportunities, which often appear hazy and highly uncertain.

My concluding comment to you is don’t get blindsided by a new competitor in your field or by an unexpected event. Learn how to anticipate the unknown and how to thrive in a world of unknown unknowns.

Become an anti-fragilista and a true innovator.

The longer one goes without market trauma, the worse the damage when commotion occurs.
– Nassim Nichilas Taleb

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