Like a candle in the wind

candle, candle in glass

A fragile system (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Nassim Taleb leads off his new book with the perfect sentence to demonstrate his concept of antifragility:

Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire.

Antifragility is the word Taleb coined to describe resilient, adaptive and complex dynamic systems like the economy and our bodies.

Such systems adapt and get stronger from stressors — to a degree.

Attempts to remove stressors from such systems makes those systems more fragile, which  causes them to break with the slightest stress — the flame on a candle. Too big to fail.

When we expose our bodies to stress — like the pounding our body takes from sprinting — our bodies adapt by building our muscles and bones stronger. The result is a body less prone to injury. Laze on the couch, and you lose muscle and bone mass and break with modest stress.

When I read Taleb’s sentence I immediately thought about the innovation efforts at companies and in the economy. Innovation efforts are often made fragile because managers or politicians want to control it from the top, only supporting the ideas they deem fit — e.g. clean energy.

This unnecessarily limits innovation trials to a small group of experiments, each with a very low chance of success (all experiments have a low chance of success). Such innovation efforts are like a lit candle that managers hope will ignite a larger fire, but the wind of chance and non-adaptability blows the candle out before it can adapt and spread. Then the flame has to be continually relit.

Some companies and some areas of the economy get this right. Those innovation efforts resemble a fire — many small flames together that adapt and rage when a wind blows on it. Lots of things are tried. Innovation here is bottoms-up. It’s at the front-line of the company and the entrepreneur level of the economy and there’s a lot of it. The things that suit customers win out. When a wind blows on the fire, it spreads instead of extinguishes.

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