Existential threats, Mother Nature and antifragility

During the early stages of COVID-19, our clients sought our assistance for overcoming a range of pandemic-induced interruptions to their businesses. A major pharmaceutical client needed us to quickly develop an app that could monitor COVID-19 exposures and diagnoses reported by its employees and contractors. The company used this information to establish strategic protocols for improved sanitation, quarantines and working from home.

When COVID-19 resulted in a country-wide lockdown order, a life sciences client turned to us to enable its call-center agents to work from home on short notice. After the pandemic forced a retail client to close 50 of its brick-and-mortar department stores over a weekend, we were called in to fortify its website to handle a huge uptick in online traffic, fulfill orders and provide up-to-the-minute information on store closures.

Later in 2020, when most clients were able to resume at least some of their operations and refocus on the increasingly unpredictable future, they saw the importance of going beyond business continuity. Although perhaps not expressed this way, they sought the ability to mirror the attributes of Mother Nature and her inexhaustible capacity for responding continuously to change.

Too many once successful companies end up stagnating because they're so well adapted to their past.

In nature, feedback is continuous. When fire destroys a forest, the species and plants that were lost will reestablish themselves over time. Nature also likes to over-compensate with layers of redundancy. That’s why author and NYU Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls Mother Nature, “thanks to its antifragility, the best manager of Black Swans,” those devastating events that are thought to be impossible until they occur.

For decades, companies have thought about reinventing themselves to mimic biological systems like the human body, which, as author Bill Bryson observed, “even when you do nearly everything wrong, your body maintains and preserves you.” Yet, too many once successful companies end up stagnating because they’re so well adapted to their past that they can’t see, let alone adapt to, their future.