Antifragile Strategic Planning
Nicholas Taleb has introduced the concept of antifragility in
his book "Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder".
Organizations that are negatively affected by change are fragile,
whereas ones that can quickly capitalize on change are antifragile.
Although Taleb describes strategic planning as 'superstitious
babble', the concepts he introduces in his book can be used to make
an organization's planning more relevant and applicable to its
needs. This goal is described through the use of four maxims of an
Antifragile Strategic Plan: i) DO NO HARM; ii) CORE COMPETENCIES;
iii) SUSTAINABLE ORGANIZATION; and iv) BALANCED SCORECARD. A
continuum compares and contrasts purely Fragile and Antifragile
strategic plans, as well as recommends when to use which end of the
The SWOT+4 Information Management and Technology (IM/IT) Planning
model is introduced below. This model overlays
four key IM/T questions with the SWOT planning model.
A Tale of Two Plans
brand new strategic plan lands on your desk and it is a work of
art! The colour schemes, visuals and the bold visions talk about a
land of tomorrow in which everything will change. Getting up from
your desk, you put it on your shelf next to the last equally
dazzling strategic plan that has not been touched since it arrived
a year ago.
Or… another dazzling plan lands on your desk that is more
pedestrian when it comes to a vision. Instead of putting it on a
shelf, you replace last year's version of the same document. Last
year's copy is covered with notes and stained with coffee cup rings
due to frequent use and referencing. What makes one plan shelf-ware
and another a much-referenced coaster?
What Makes a Good Strategic Plan and So-What? Questions
Try this little experiment at home. Google "why write a
strategic plan" both with and without quotes. There are millions of
hits sans quotes, but only five with quotes. While hardly
scientific, we are more inclined to know how to write a strategic
plan than know why we need a plan or when we have a good one. Other
so-what questions of developing a strategic plan include the
- What is the worst thing to happen if we do not have a plan? Can
we live with that result?
- Three years from now, this plan will be a success if as a
result it caused us to …. what?
- Who can answer these questions?
Robert Kaplan and David Norton, in their classic book "The
Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into Action", answered
these questions by identifying three benefits for developing and
having a strategic planning :
- Quantify long-term outcomes.
- Identify mechanisms and provide resources for achieving the
- Establish short-term milestones for the scorecard.
Many organizations select a set of outcomes and a flashy
balanced scorecard and are then blindsided by subsequent
unpredicted change. An Antifragile Strategic Plan takes the best of
the balanced scorecard while also preparing an organization for
change through the following attributes or maxims. An Antifragile
- makes the organization no worse off than if there had been no
plan (DO NO HARM maxim);
- ensures the organization is getting better at its core business
(CORE COMPETENCIES maxim);
- describes the known-known changes facing the organization and
ensures it has the capacity to weather all but large-scale
unpredictable and irregular events (CREATING A SUSTAINABLE
ORGANIZATION maxim); and,
- identifies long-term outcomes, implementation plans to achieve
these and short-term milestones to monitor their execution - but
only after the above maxims have been satisfied (BALANCED SCORECARD
In his 2012 book "Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder",
Nicholas Taleb introduces the concept of the same name. Generally
living things are antifragile if they use environmental stressors
to become stronger. In contrast, a porcelain teacup is highly
fragile. It does well in a grandmother's china cabinet, but hates
change such as visits from the grandchildren.
A note on terminology, antifragile is not the same as robust or
resilient. A seawall is robust surviving the pounding of the waves
for decades, but it cannot repair itself. A coral reef needs the
pounding of the waves to provide nutrients to grow and flourish.
Beyond normal random variations in an environment there are
'large-scale unpredictable and irregular events of massive
consequence' called Black Swans (think of the financial crisis of
2008 or a dinosaur-killing asteroid).
How to Avoid Being Grandma's Porcelain Teacup
(Anti)Fragility is a function of optionality. The more options
you have, the better you weather stressors.
Debt: Debt is the single greatest killer of
optionality. In the context of strategic planning, debt can be
insufficient time, talent or treasure.
- Tinker and
Fail Fast: Evolution, what Taleb calls the greatest
antifragile force on earth, is constantly tinkering, failing and
building on the occasional success.
If you avoid making a decision today and you can still select that
path in the future, you have increased your optionality.
Productive Redundancy: Organizational capacity
gives you options to react to minor environmental changes or even
to a Black Swan event.
- Small is
Beautiful: Organizational size has a non-linear
relationship with fragility. As things get bigger, complexity
increases making it harder to control, coordinate or communicate
within the organization.
- If it is Not
Broken - Stress It! At the gym,
our muscles will overreact to a small stressor (e.g. lifting a
weight) so that they can better handle a future larger
- Beware of the
Agency Problem: Also known as having 'skin in the
game'. Ensure that a person cannot gain from the upside of a
decision while avoiding the downside.
- Expect the
Black Swan - and hopefully it tastes like
chicken. Negative or positive Black Swan
events will occur; antifragility allows us to weather or capitalize
Antifragile Strategic Planning
Unfortunately, Antifragile Strategic Planning is boring. Its
first three maxims (DO NO HARM, CORE COMPETENCIES and SUSTAINABLE
ORGANIZATION) will create a well-run and efficient public service.
Good government seldom leads to ribbon-cutting, photo opportunities
or tweets. Visionary (and tweetable) changes can lead to increased
complexity and thus antifragility. Strategic plans tend to be
visionary which is why Taleb calls them 'superstitious babble'. He
goes on to say "... there is no evidence that strategic planning
works... (it) makes the corporation option-blind as it gets locked
into non-opportunistic courses of action." .
Despite Taleb's dismissive comments, antifragile strategic
planning is more than an oxymoron. There is a continuum of
strategic plans with a purely antifragile plan on one side and a
purely fragilista (Taleb's term) plan on the other side with
reality falling in the middle.
To Antifragile or to Fragile, that is the Question
Visionary (and Fragile) plans tend to skip the first three
maxims (DO NO HARM, CORE COMPETENCIES and SUSTAINABLE ORGANIZATION)
and jump straight to the desired long-term outcomes. In contrast,
Antifragile Strategic Plans ensure the business has good
optionality first and then takes calculated future risks. The more
skipping, the more fragile your plan. The more optionality, the
more antifragile your plan. Skip or optionality, fragile or
antifragile, how do you decide?
While it may be tempting to pick a happy medium, this should
also be avoided as it will neither sustain nor challenge an
organization. A visionary plan can create positive disruption. It
will introduce self-inflicted stressors that can result in a
stronger and more antifragile organization. The more visionary a
plan, however, the more likely it will become shelf-ware. Even
worse, a plan that fragilizes an organization may leave it unable
to survive environmental changes .
Alternatively, an organization suffering from change fatigue may
benefit from a few boring, albeit implementable, strategic plans.
The risk is that the organization may confuse apathy or inertia for
antifragility. The following table provides the ends of the
continuum for different antifragile aspects of a strategic
Hopefully, the concept of antifragility and this table can help
you better answer the questions introduced above including 'Why do
we need a strategic plan?' More importantly, Antifragile Strategic
Planning will lead you to a well-thumbed and coffee stained plan in
your future. For other thoughts on strategic planning in particular
as they apply to information management and technology, visit www.myorgbio.org.
print taleb TABLE
Taleb Test & Definition
Best/Worst time to use?
Best time. A healthy organization has become
complacent. A visionary/fragile plan can wake up the organization
even if it is never implemented.
Worst time. The organization has become fragile
but the overall market continues to be viable.
Best time. The organization is executing upon a
predefined strategy. Also if the organization has found itself with
fewer and fewer options because of environmental or self-inflicted
Worst time. The environment has clearly
signaled that the organization is no longer relevant (e.g.
continuing to manufacture buggy whips - assuming motor cars are a
The degree of 'sexiness' for the plan. How many new ideas are
there and what is their size? Directions regarding current
Very sexy. New ideas and a large list of new
strategic directions pull the organization in a number of ways. The
Do No Harm, Competency and Sustainable maxims are largely ignored
as existing operations are assumed to continue as is or improve on
their own inertia. Funding from existing operations may be
re-directed to new ideas.
Boring. The plan focuses on the three maxims
before considering long-term outcomes. New ideas are funded but at
a tinkering level and past non-failing ideas are given
incrementally more funding to bring them further to fruition.
Details are ex/implicit within the plan. Can the typical reader
look at an item and inherently say, 'I know how to build
Very visionary but few details or measures.
Because the hard work is done (visioning), execution is
sufficiently self-evident. Current operations, if mentioned, are
subject to extremely stretched goals.
Details provided ex/implicitly: Changes to current
operations measures are incremental with few unknowns as to how to
change the organization. Stronger measures are applied to new
initiatives than to existing operations.
The number of new initiatives. These may be extensions of a
current program area or net new efforts (e.g. new legislation,
programs, systems, etc.)
Many large initiatives. Smaller initiatives may
also exist but they are often hidden from sight. Past initiatives
are not listed particularly if they were not successful.
Many small initiatives. All initiatives are listed
to some degree. There is a listing of past initiatives successful
or not and what the organization has learned from the
Implications to organizational debt of time, talent or treasure
of the plan.
Resourcing is unclear. How the initiatives will be
resourced is not explicitly stated. Time, talent and treasure are
borrowed from current operations. For larger initiatives debt may
be used to cover revenue short falls.
Funding is clear. There is a clear resourcing plan
for all existing initiatives extending to time (including
organizational attention span), talent (staff and contractors) and
Impact to optionality and organizational redundancy.
Few options; Resources are stretched. Because of
the focus on 'big bang' new initiatives, the organization is
channeled into a pre-defined course of action. There may not be the
organizational capacity to either implement or extract the
organization from a failed initiative. The organization is poorly
positioned to handle Black Swan events due to limited
Many options. Underlying operations are working
well and the organization can experiment with small scale
tinkering. Promising experiments can be scaled up to the next level
or be quickly terminated with clear lessons learned. The
organization is well positioned to react to and possibly capitalize
on Black Swan events due to redundant capacity.
Constantly changing. Rapidly and repeatedly
changed to meet the current vision of the plan. Often the changes
are done so as to streamline the structure.
More static and made thoughtfully. Changes are
made but with long periods of stasis in between. Benefits of the
stasis is the creation of implicit knowledge and strong networks.
The costs include inertia and personal fiefdoms.
Agency conflict. A general manager or deputy
minister may demand high visibility changes but will not be around
to see their implementation through or feel the impact of their
possible failure. Worse, the next 'interloper-manager' may
completely change direction. The innocent left behind are blamed
for its implementation failure.
No or limited agency conflict. Because public
servants are intimately tied to operational processes or small
scale tinkering projects, they have considerable skin in the game
to ensure execution occurs. 'Interloper-senior managers' are
restricted to suggesting new small scale tinkering efforts or
incremental improvements in existing operations.
Likelihood the plan will be used
Unlikely to be used. Because of operational
demands, environmental stressors and shortages of time, talent and
treasure, the vision will unlikely be implemented.
High likelihood of being used. Operations are
being consistently improved and tinkering has resulted in small to
larger gains in productivity without jeopardizing organizational
time, talent or treasure. Better still the plan lends itself to
being easily updated.
SWOT+4 IM/IT Strategic Planning
Whether you have a Fragile or Antifragile Strategic Plan,
Information Management/Technology (IM/IT) is likely to be a part of
it. Unfortunately, IM/IT is expensive. The advantages it provides
are fleeting and are costly to maintain. As a result, an
organization must strategically and operationally plan for its
investments in IM/IT. The problem is, what exactly should be in the
IM/IT Strategic or Operational Plan, and what are the questions
these plans are trying to answer?
At the core of the SWOT+4 IM/IT Planning Model are the
organization's Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats
(SWOT). This 2×2 matrix is a mainstay of strategic analysis. In
brief, it is a method to view a situation from two key dimensions:
internal versus external, and positive versus negative.
The SWOT tool is incomplete when it comes to evaluating an
organization's IM/IT. For example, is a change of technology an
opportunity or a threat? Are the existing IM/IT systems a strength
or a weakness? The answer is - it depends. As a result, an
organization should consider the following four questions:
PLAN: What is important to the organization? This is at
the center of the model and crosses all four SWOT
IM/IT: How can/does/should IM/IT support or impede what is
important to the organization; does the organization have the right
IM/IT and if not, when will it get it? This starts as an internal
consideration and leads to external dimensions - factors such as
regulatory compliance, competitor benchmarking and industry best
Q3: IM/IT CAPACITY:
How well does the organization do IM/IT? Is it getting better,
worse or about the same? What about the fleet of applications or
physical resources - are they current or being run into the ground?
These are internal organizational considerations.
Q4: IM/IT FUTURE:
What organizational and IM/IT changes are on the event horizon that
will affect the above?
The strategic and operational plans are overlaid on the model.
The organization's strategic plans should be able to answer the
questions of (Q1) what is important and (Q4) what is on the
horizon. The IM/IT Strategic Plan addresses (Q2) organizational
IM/IT needs, and the IM/IT Operational Plan focuses on the
questions of (Q3) current capacity.
The following illustration provides a visual representation of
where corporate strategic and operational plans end and where their
IM/IT counterparts start. The value in the SWOT+4 model is
evaluating whether there are gaps between the various operational
and planning documents and how much overlap there should ideally be
between these various planning efforts/documents.
About the Author
Frank Potter is a professional accountant (CMA) and holds a MBA
from the University of Athabasca. He is currently with the Ministry
of Alberta Innovation and Advanced Education and is the Director of
Strategic Planning for Information Management and Technology.
Previously he held roles, typically at the Director level, within
governmental and consulting organizations. To contact Frank, visit
www.myorgbio.org or email .
Adapted from 'The Balanced Scorecard: Translating Strategy into
Action' by Robert S. Kaplan, David P. Norton; Harvard Business
Review Press, 1996. Pp. 14-15.
All references are from 'Antifragile: Things That Gain From
Disorder' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Random House Publishing Group,
For a great summary of organizations who have fragilized
themselves, read 'How The Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never
Give In', by Jim Collins, Harper Collins, 2009.
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