Wednesday, November 13, 2013
“The Black Swan” fame Nassim Taleb calls authors of books with titles such as “8 steps to innovation” charlatans1. It means people practicing quackery or similar confidence tricks in order to obtain money, fame etc. Taleb has two main objections to n-steps-to-xyz-approach: One, such an approach tends to be predictive in situations which may be inherently non-predictive. Two, it gives positive advice and only positive advice exploiting peoples’ gullibility and sucker-proneness. As a co-author of “8 steps to innovation” I thought, let me reflect on how we fare as charlatans. More specifically, I would like to explore following two questions: Is “8 steps” approach predictive or non-predictive? Does it give positive advice only?
Predictive vs non-predictive approaches: A predictive approach tries to predict the future and based on the prediction arrives at a response. Imagine you run an educational institute. You may analyse the trends using a predictive approach and come to a conclusion that video-led online learning is going to be an important part of the education system five years from now. As a result, you may decide to explore various platforms available in the market which enable online education.
In an alternate scenario, you may ask yourself, “What do I enjoy doing?” And your answer may be “creating short animation videos”. So you end up creating one-or-two minute videos and upload them on the Internet. Over a few weeks you realize that your videos related to Physics are getting watched more often. Slowly you focus on Physics related animation videos. You narrate this story in one of the parties you attend. A week later you get a call from a guy you met in the party and he offers to sponsor your video series. Your business has started – without predicting anything about the future.
A non-predictive approach has three characteristics: (1) It has means-driven rather than goal oriented action (2) it uses affordable-loss rather than expected return as an evaluation criterion (3) it treats each surprise as a potential sign-post2.
8-steps, a soft-predictive approach: Here is how 8-steps approach typically gets used. An organization that has intent to become more innovative does a self-assessment on the 5-levels of innovation maturity. Depending upon its current level, it decides its course of action in terms of building pipeline, improving idea velocity or enhancing batting average. Similarly, it identifies whether the problem primarily that of Rider (lack of direction) or Elephant (lack of motivation / habit). For example, here is how a bunch of managers assessed the situation in their groups using the navigation matrix.
While building the pipeline, the ideas may come as a response to a wave like Big Data (predictive) or it may come from an employee’s passion for data visualization (means-driven, non-predictive). 8-steps approach doesn't prescribe any policy using which ideas should be selected. However, 8-steps approach puts emphasis on low-cost experimentation. This makes 8-steps approach soft-predictive. It suggests that you can start with a prediction but not to take it too seriously. Build confidence only through experimentation.
Negative advice: Step-8 in the 8-step approach is “Margin of safety”. It is only about what can be done so that you don’t get crippled when you fall. Throughout the book, we use the Elephant-Rider model to warn the reader of slippery slopes of our decisions making process.
In summary, 8-steps approach is soft-predictive. It says, “By all means, predict. But don’t take your prediction too seriously. Perform low-cost experiments to validate your assumptions. And make sure you build a margin of safety”
1. Nassim Taleb, “Antifragile: How to live in a world we don’t understand”. Taleb’s quote related to charlatans is at kindle location 5051.
2. A good source for the comparative study of predictive vs non-predictive approaches to strategy is: “What to do next? The case for non-predictive strategy” by Robert Wiltbank et. al., Strategic Management Journal, vol. 27, 2006, pages 981-998.
3. Image source: attrition.org
Saturday, November 2, 2013
“What do you do if you cannot predict?” is the title of chapter 13 in Nassim Taleb’s bestseller The Black Swan (TBS). Antifragile expands the 10 page chapter into a 500 page book. I find the question important and its exploration useful in my work on improving innovation effectiveness. And hence I turned to Antifragile. But I am allergic to fat books, notwithstanding the kindle versions. Fortunately, the essence of the approach to the “What do you do?” question is presented in four of the twenty five chapters (chapter 9 to 12). Rest of the book is about the definition and the importance of antifragile and equally about ranting against Harvard Profs, bankers with black tie, Alan Greenspan and loads of philosophy. It wasn’t difficult to skim and skip through most of it. In this article we look at my 3 take-aways from Antifragile on the “What do you do?” question. But before that let’s look at the definition of antifragile.
What is Antifragile? Wind extinguishes candle and energises fire. Thus fire is benefited from the wind and candle is harmed by the wind. Anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks) is antifragilie. The reverse is fragile. In economic systems, fiscal deficit is a source of fragility and innovation is the source of antifragility. In personal life, corporate employment is fragile (to downturn) while tenured-prof-cum-fiction-writing is antifragile. A bestseller and your life may change.
1. Fragility is measurable, risk is not: Can you predict the chance of you getting fired from your job? No. But can you imagine the consequences of you getting fired? Yes, you can. Fragility is about the potential impact of rare events and not about predicting the occurrence of the events. As we saw in an earlier article, Ken Cox, Technical Manager of the control systems program of Apollo 13, didn’t have the foggiest idea of the probability of command module failure. However, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the consequences of such a failure.
One way to measure fragility is to calculate acceleration of harm due to unit change in something. For example, you may check additional harm from Fukushima reactor when tsunami goes beyond certain level. Similarly, you can check the additional delay in traffic when the number of cars on the road increases by certain percentage. If we detect acceleration of harm, it means the system is fragile.
2. First step is to reduce fragility: Taleb says – the first step towards antifragility consists in decreasing downside rather than increasing upside. To make profits and buy a BMW, it would be a good idea to, first survive. In the movie, Million dollar baby, the boxing coach Frankie (Clint Eastwood) tells Maggie (Hilary Swank) following during a coaching session:
Frankie: You forgot the rule. Now, what is the rule?
Maggie: Keep my left up?
Frankie: Is to protect yourself at all times. Now, what is the rule?
Maggie: Protect myself at all times.
Frankie: Good. Good.
Unfortunately, one can never know all such harmful events or create a full-proof protection. However, one can reduce one’s exposure. For example, adding redundancy helps. Commercial aircrafts have redundancy built into almost all aspects of their design – engines, autopilots, instruments, pumps, generators, air and hydraulic systems, controls etc. Another way to reduce fragility is to keep a system as simple and small as possible.
3. Optionality is the key lever to antifragility: Thales, a Greek philosopher from Miletus in pre-Socratic era (perhaps a contemporary of Buddha), is one of the heroes of Antifragile. According to a story, Thales reserved olive presses ahead of time at a discount. The harvest turned out to be good and Thales rented the presses out at a high price when the demand peaked. What Thales bought was an option – right but not an obligation to use the olive presses. Options which allow you more upside than downside are vectors of antifragility.
In an earlier article we saw how Paul Buchheit spent 6-7 hours building a Gmail prototype involving content-targeted ads. In fact, he himself didn’t believe that the experiment would work. But he didn’t lose much in doing the activity and it led to the most successful business model for his employer – Google. Taleb says that low-cost trial-and-error activity like that of Paul can be seen as the expression of an option. The tricky part is to recognize the favourable outcome.
Image sources: Wikipedia.org and movies.tvguide.com