Forget Resilience, You Need to Be Antifragile

3 years ago
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Nonlinear systems generally cannot be solved and cannot be added together… Nonlinearity means that the act of playing the game has a way of changing the rules… That twisted changeability makes nonlinearity hard to calculate, but it also creates rich kinds of behavior that never occur in linear systems.

– James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science

This is a secret, so don’t tell anyone. Here’s a lesson about the pandemic that we as an industry haven’t really considered—being antifragile.

When we think about vaccinations to fight a disease, we’re essentially looking at the practice of introducing a small dose of that disease so that our bodies will build an immunity to it, with the hope that we are better prepared to fight that disease.

Essentially, we intentionally stress the body’s immune system, it overcompensates, and is better prepared to fight the disease in the future.

The German philosopher, Nietzsche’s famous quote ‘what doesn’t kill me, makes me stronger’ seems appropriate here (though taken out of context).

We can use the vaccination concept as a metaphor for age services organisations going through the pandemic. This isn’t about being resilient, it’s about being stronger and better as a result of stress and adversity at an existential level.

Nassim Nicolas Taleb offers the following: Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks, and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

In short, the ongoing pandemic is an opportunity to be better at what we do, as individuals, as organisations, and as an industry. At the start of the pandemic, an innovAGEING survey noted the following service provider goals:

  • Ensure client/resident and staff morale and safety
  • Manage revenue and funding
  • Interpret government pandemic-related initiatives and funding
  • Increase workforce capacity and identifying underemployment
  • Normalise service

For much of this year, innovAGEING, through its Insights Webinar Series, National Awards, case studies, and opinion pieces with industry leaders, we’ve been able to learn an incredible amount on how progressive organisations are succeeding. These include:

  • Innovating on their existing business and funding models.
  • Adopting technology that staff and residents want to use, and not work around.
  • Integrating technology with the organisation’s strategy.
  • Having a clear understanding that organisational transformation is critical in digital initiatives.
  • Allowing organisational slack to absorb unforeseen sector shocks.


The top 10 lessons learnt from age services innovators

Be entrepreneurial. See opportunities that others don’t see. Have the courage to chase this even when you have to operate in conditions where things are not in your control, and you don’t have all the resources you would like.

Find comfort in speed. Be reconciled to the fact that developments happening in the industry are going to be faster, and will continue to speed up. Essentially, external and internal factors will mean that change will happen at a more rapid pace. 

Champion diverse sense-making. Broaden the circles of people giving you input and advice in order to prioritise, make decisions, and act very quickly. Include outliers, not just people who think (and look) like you. 

Have a learning mindset. In a crisis situation with little precedent, no one knows anything anymore. As such, you need to be able to make and quickly test hypothesis, learn from that, and iterate. The truth is, no one knows what will happen, and things can change unexpectedly.

Tune management down. While the role of managers to give predictable results and make operations more efficient is still important, the need to be entrepreneurial and find opportunities has taken precedence. 

Be an astronaut. Sitting, thinking and analysing is not enough. You need to embrace action, execute and create. In life, there are astronomers, and astronauts. During a crisis, you need to be an astronaut.     

Transcend anxiety. Reframe the crisis situation as an opportunity. For example, traditional industry leaders may not perform as strongly during a crisis. As such, you have just as good an opportunity to succeed—the playing field has been flattened.

Not just about making money. Profiteers during the pandemic were called out. Opportunity needs to be about being financially viable, but it’s also about providing care and certainty during tough and uncertain times. You need to have a purpose and mission.

Don’t forget empathy. You can’t talk about chasing opportunities in a crisis without understanding people’s fears and insecurities during a crisis. As a leader, it’s also about bringing people along.

Geography matters less. Adopt technologies and management styles that support remote work (not just work from home) and collaboration. You need to hold on to (and attract) good talent in a crisis—make it easy for yourself.

In the end, it’s all about giving hope, strength, guidance and togetherness when things become volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Merlin Kong is Head of innovAGEING, Australia’s national innovation network for the age services industry.

Published in Fusion Summer 2020