In AntiFragile, Nassim Taleb explains what firms can do to lower their risks of catastrophic events, despite prevailing complexities and uncertainties. He describes such firms as the opposite of ‘fragile’ … ergo, Antifragile. They’re firms that thrive on uncertainty by benefiting more when they’re right than harmed when they’re wrong. A useful summary of the full book is available here. From my understanding of his concepts, here are 4 rules for being Antifragile in B2B sales performance:
1/ LEARN FROM TRIAL + ERROR
Taleb contends that systems that learn are buffered from making big mistakes. They exploit small errors by detecting and fixing them fast .The best way to improve your understanding of complex situations you don’t fully understand is via trial and error. When every trial gives you info on what doesn’t work, you start zooming in on a solution. Trials that fail let you figure out where to go, one step at a time. In practice, such trial and error makes high performance a logical result of learning that’s incremental + personalized.
2/ FOCUS ON REDUCING RISKS RATHER THAN PREDICTION
When predictions fail, there’s often a call for better forecasts. Taleb contends this is a flawed response when the situation’s complex + uncertain. He sees a rising risk of ‘Black Swan’ [rare, high impact] events as a result of the world getting less and less predictable. We’ve come to rely more and more on technologies that have errors and interactions that are harder to estimate let alone predict. When you’re dealing with situations fraught with uncertainty, you’re far better off modifying your exposure than honing your calculations.
3/ MEASURE THE CHAIN OF EFFECTS
To avoid risks of big mistakes, there’s a need to think in 2nd steps, chains of consequences, + side effects. There’s also a need to avoid “confirmation fallacies that show what has worked without a complete picture of what’s worked and what’s not worked”. Spotting + fixing small mistakes requires an approach to measuring performance that broadens the picture, reveals the little things that need fixing, and confirms that the fix really fixed things in the full chain of effects. This amounts to a need to manage more ‘ecologically’….but it also requires more organic feedback mechanisms that help us sense, faster and with greater granularity, when we have an error to correct. In situations shrouded in uncertainty, when small mistakes go undetected the impacts of big mistakes become more severe.
4/ FOCUS ON BAD PRACTICES RATHER THAN BEST PRACTICES
Don’t look for the path to the big win. Look for early signals that you’re on a path to a loss and fix associated mistakes. Those who win when surrounded with uncertainty do a better job of finding and fixing errors. In practice, exceptional performance is guided by avoiding the negative; learning what to avoid. This is akin to the Moneyball future of B2B sales management … the Oakland A’s out-performed expectations by avoiding being struck out at home plate; by getting on base they left themselves in a position to still score runs. Put another way, if you want better outcomes focus less on improving predictability and more on modifying your exposure to errors that could produce a big, negative, event [like a deal that didn't close unexpectedly]. Reminiscent of some earlier musings about how a greater reliance on craftsmanship and less on predictability can predictably improve results.
Many thanks to Carlos Vidal for noting the connections between Taleb’s Antifragile concepts
and McKinsey’s Portfolio of Initiatives.