What it says on the tin
In his book, Antifragile, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, takes his theory of random events a step further. In short, all systems, from evolution and medicine to mental health and economics, benefit from natural stressors. Mitigating minor and predictable events only make them vulnerable to major and unforeseen events – unforeseen because they have never previously occurred. The goal, he says, should be to create systems which actually benefit from these so-called black swans, as opposed to risk being left in ruins. To do this we need to stop tinkering and interfering with nature, and instead let it run its cause; come to terms with our inability to predict the future, and prepare for the unknown unknowns, in whatever shape they may eventually and inevitably take.
Humans are storytelling animals, and so we have an urge to fit all information we’re exposed to into a comprehensible narrative which is compatible with our worldview. We don’t particularly care for uncertainty, randomness and chaos, which, despite our failure to recognise these, are key ingredients of our existence.
When I first started as a planner I found it all quite confusing, and I suppose I still do. But reading this book I realised why this is a good thing: it makes greatness possible. The planning role, as opposed to all other agency roles, is different from agency to agency because planning is a process which escapes simple definitions. It’s a wild animal whose natural instincts are restricted by predetermined models and processes. Every project is a different beast, constituting a range of ever-changing variables: product, category, customers, brand perception, company history, objectives, cultural context and so forth – each combination of which presents a unique challenge. This means uncertainty for the planner who has never before encountered this exact problem. In relation to the concept of antifragility, then, one may say that each project contains a series of stressors which combined make up a black swan; a problem that couldn’t possibly have been predicted.
Also, crucially, we deal with human minds, which are nothing if not chaotic and unpredictable, not to mention diverse. Yet we tend to think we can change a large number of these unique entities using one-size-fits-all models.
By forcing triangle shaped problems into squarely shaped models, we end up streamlining something which shouldn’t be streamlined, and run the risk of overlooking what makes a particular problem unique, and which in turn could’ve contributed to a unique outcome.
When forcing chaos into a familiar narrative, the story will have a familiar ending. Do you think all those writers of Hollywood movies felt they were writing cliché after cliché when they sat in isolation facing the blank page? Yet, somehow, that’s what they ended up with. Our life’s narrative has been written long before we face that blank sheet of paper, and unless we consciously avoid using it as a template for new information, we will be blind to the blandness of the results it produces.
God is in the details. Whether it is our minds or our models that iron out the natural wrinkles of a project, doing so buys you a one-way ticket to Blandville. By focusing on the bigger picture and insisting on a simplification in all stages of the thought process – a.k.a. single-mindedness – one runs the risk of drowning in the red sea of sameness that is commercial messages. I’ve experienced it myself many times: after duly filling in all the blanks in the strategy process (painting by numbers), we arrive at what feels like the one and only inevitable strategy – the right one. Yet one is left with the strange feeling of familiarity. That is because everybody else have focused on the same things and arrived at similar conclusions.
Planning is a confusing discipline, but it has to be if greatness is ever to emerge from it. Therefore we should embrace the uncertainty of our profession and learn to live with it. We should allow the uniqueness of each project to drive the process and take us down roads we haven’t been before. We should stop looking for familiar information just so we can mentally delete it in a subconscious search for a lowest common denominator. We should embrace what is too complex to explain in marketing lingo and allow for more intuitive solutions (not a license to go nuts though). We should stop creating one-liners from complex research; customer pen portraits; using oneinsight; …Frustrating, yes, but also truly challenging.
The concept of antifragility, together with the virtues of failure, is what we should teach our clients. After all, solutions born from chaos and uncertainty are destined to be difficult to explain to those expecting an all-defining, single word (preferably an emotion) to end all other words, and to perfectly capture and summarising their brand for all of eternity. Strategies like these don’t live in the real world, they live in advertising world and in the world of brand-bureaucracies, where their inflexibility and contrived nature make them fragile to any change in their variables. Antifragile strategies are flexible, and a strategy is only as flexible as their creators.