Traditional business thinking has always prized stability. The way to build success, the usual thinking goes, is to protect your business by avoiding risk as much as possible. To that end, most businesses focus on finding one particular way of doing things, streamlining and perfecting that one method as much as they can, and then sticking with it as long as possible. Here at EvenVision, we look at things a little differently.
In the industry we work in, where a single Google update can render today’s best practices completely outdated and “disruption” is seen as a virtue, risk is simply a part of doing business. In that kind of environment, trying to avoid risk by sticking to one proven strategy or method is about as effective as trying to fend off a hurricane with an umbrella. Instead of avoiding risk, we embrace it. And because we do, we are better prepared to succeed than many competitors.
To better understand EvenVision’s position on risk as a part of doing business, let’s take a look at two important concepts: Black Swans, and “antifragile” systems.
Black Swans - A Rare Bird in the Land
In his book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, author Nassim Taleb discussed the impact of what he terms Black Swans. For much of European history, black swans were thought to be an impossibility. The "truth" that all swans were white was so widely accepted, the phrase "black swan" became a colloquialism for something impossible or nonexistent. But then, something unexpected happened – while exploring Australia in 1697, Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh discovered swans with black feathers. In an instant, an old truth was proven to be false, and an assumption that was so ingrained in a culture it had become a common expression was overturned.
Taleb uses the black swan as an example of how sudden, unpredictable events can break the assumptions that an entire system of thought or culture is built on:
What we call here a Black Swan (and capitalize it) is an event with the following three attributes.
- First, it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility.
- Second, it carries an extreme 'impact'.
- Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.
I stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme 'impact', and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability. A small number of Black Swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.
Many important historical events can be considered Black Swans, such as the 9/11 attacks or the 2008 financial crisis. Both were sudden and unexpected. Both had an immediate impact. And even before the dust they kicked up had settled, people began to examine, contextualize, and postulate on how they happened and what they meant in order to bring them in line with how we expect the world to behave, changing the way we thought about the world in the process.
Black Swans aren't just contained to the realm of history, either. The tech industry has encountered many Black Swans this century alone. The advent of Google, YouTube, Facebook, iPhones, E-readers, and other earthshaking innovations all came unexpectedly and redefined the way the internet and technology worked in profound ways. And as easy as it is to look back now and construct a sensible timeline where the rise of Facebook as the dominant social media platform was an obvious and inevitable event, the programmers who spent months and years of their lives writing code for Friendster and MySpace would certainly have a different story to tell.
In other words, Black Swans are the sudden changes in an industry or field that ruin business plans and shatter enterprises' illusions of avoiding risk. When a Black Swan appears, even the most stable and predictable ways of doing things can suddenly become anachronisms and, even worse, liabilities.
Antifragile Systems and Sustainability
The thing about Black Swans, especially in an industry like ours, is that it's never a question of if one will happen. The only relevant question is "when?" Given that this is the kind of environment that we work in, "avoiding risk" simply isn't a viable strategy. Risk is simply a part of what we do – we could wake up tomorrow to a trade paper headline announcing the creation of a new software update or a new piece of technology that has instantly rendered a commonly accepted practice obsolete.
So if Black Swans are paradigm-shattering events that are not only inevitable, but also completely unpredictable, what can be done to protect against them? In his Black Swan theory, Taleb discusses how the key to resisting the impact of Black Swan events is building systems and business models that are able to resist the impacts of negative Black Swan events, and to exploit the impact of positive ones. The strongest systems are the ones that thrive on this kind of chaos, and that grow stronger when things get shaken and tossed around instead of crumbling or breaking in half. Instead of being risk averse, these Black Swan-resistant cultures and business models need to be what Taleb calls "antifragile."
For businesses like EvenVision, being antifragile is a necessity for continued success. We don’t have the luxury of specializing in one trend, method, or way of doing business. In a world that changes as fast as ours, traditional risk avoidance practices don't protect businesses; they leave them vulnerable to obsolescence. Only by being adaptable, proactive, and always willing to experiment can we remain antifragile against the sudden upheavals that constantly change the business landscape around us. We embrace rapid change.
In practical terms, this means that the best way for us to succeed is to create an environment where everyone is constantly learning new ways to do things, and is given the opportunity to experiment, grow, and adapt as quickly as possible. When the only other choice we can make is to stay complacent and wait for the tides of industry to erode our business plan’s foundations out from under us, it's not really a choice at all.
"...create an environment where everyone is constantly learning new ways to do things, and is given the opportunity to experiment, grow, and adapt as quickly as possible. "
EvenVision's way of doing things looks pretty strange from a traditional, "avoid risk at all costs" point of view. Instead of focusing on one way of doing things and streamlining our methods to industrial-level precision, we create an environment where team members are given the time and opportunity to stretch their wings, branch out, try new things, and, most of all, always be learning. We don't know what the next Black Swan that will shake the industry will be until it happens, which means that the only way to be prepared for it is to be prepared for anything. Sometimes that means being messy, or following dead ends, or trying out untested ways of doing things, in order to remain resistant against the sudden changes and paradigm shifts.
If that sounds like it goes against the common business wisdom of being risk averse, that's because it does. But in an industry like ours, it's the only way to do things. Staying dynamic, by being the fastest to learn, grow, and adapt, is the best way to serve our clients. Tech industry Black Swans don’t just negatively impact tech companies – they affect their clients, too. When an old way of doing things becomes obsolete overnight, business plans aren't the only things that are suddenly outdated. All the work that was done according old models suddenly becomes passé, leaving even robust businesses struggling to adapt and the work they've done for their clients out of date. Continued success in our field, for both our clients and for us, requires constantly learning, changing, and staying antifragile.