We’re learning what it means to be forced to be reactive. Sometimes, as on Friday, november 13 at 9:20 pm CET in Paris, France, we react with horror. But that’s the new reality. Plan as we might, we can’t predict everything. Sometimes we can’t predict anything. We just have to make ourselves – in the words of Nassim Taleb – antifragile.
Why is the world less predictable? One reason could be that it’s more connected. Things happen faster. Actions and reactions are connected by wired milliseconds. The world has become one huge Rube Goldberg machine and anyone can put it in motion at any time.
I suspect the world is also more organic. The temporary stasis of human effort that used to hold nature at bay for a bit is giving way to a more natural ebb and flow. Artificial barriers and constraints, like national borders, have little meaning any more. We flow back and forth across geography. Hierarchies have become networks. Centralized planning yields to spontaneous emerging events. We are afloat in an ocean of unpredictability. It’s hard to steer a straight path in such an environment.
Because of these two things, the world is definitely more amplified. Small things become big things much faster. Implications can grow thunderous in mere seconds. Ripple effects become tsunamis.
We want predictability. We want control. We hate that our world can be thrown into a tailspin by 8 people who hate us and what we stand for. We want intelligence to be fool proof. We want detection to be flawless. But while we wish for these things with all our hearts, the reality is that we will be forced to react. This is the world we have built. The technology that makes it wonderful is the same technology that, in a span of 40 minutes (the time it took for all the attacks in Paris), can make it heart-achingly painful.
In a world where structures give way to flow – where straight lines blur into oscillating waves – what can we do?
First of all, we can continually improve our ability to react. We have to make sense of new events as quickly as possible. We have to adapt more rapidly. Our world has to be more sensitive, more flexible, more nimble. Again, with a head nod to Nassim Taleb, we have to know how to minimize the downside and maximize the upside.
Secondly, we have to rethink how our institutions work. They have to evolve for a new world. And this evolution will happen faster in the areas of greatest unpredictability. For an enlightening read, try Team of Teams by General Stanley McChrystal. As leader of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan and Iraq, he was at the eye of the storm of unpredictability. His lessons have gained a terrifying new relevance after the events of last Friday.
Finally, we have to hold fast to our values. They are the things that cannot – must not – change. They are the one constant that helps us set our bearings when we react and adapt. While plans are a constant “work in progress,” values must be rock solid.
For most of our recorded history, we have tried to understand the world and gain some sense of control over it. We have tried to push back chaos with order – replace jagged or fluid curves of nature with artificially straight lines. Ironically, the more we have imposed our rational will, the more our environment has become dynamic, networked, organic, reactive and complex – all the things the world has always been. The harder we try to set our own beat, the more we find ourselves moving to the timeless rhythm of nature.
And in that world, adaptation is the whole ball of wax.