The Lucretius Problem: Building Operational Redundancies

Elliott Gibb

In his book “Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder” Nassim Nicholas Taleb cites the Latin philosopher and poet Titus Lucretius Carus, who said:

“The fool believes that the tallest mountain in the world will be equal to the tallest one he has observed.”

Taleb calls this the Lucretius problem

He claims that when we prepare for the worst outcomes, we only prepare for what we’ve already seen happen. However, this preparation doesn’t consider that these were only the worst cases so far, and the future might bring entirely different challenges and issues

Taleb goes on to remind the readers of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, and how engineers indeed built the reactor to endure the strongest earthquake that ever happened. 

The combined effects of the earthquake and tsunami created unprecedented complications. The Fukushima disaster is perhaps the strongest argument in favour of building diverse and comprehensive redundancies that go beyond the usual, known problems.

Luckily, your mistakes (probably) won’t cause a nuclear disaster, and some of them can be covered with a solid plan B. However, you’ll need more than a collection of spare parts to tackle unexpected adversities. 

The Lucretius Problem in the Context of Contingency Planning

Contingency planning is creating a strategy and a set of procedures that mitigate the negative effects of possible disruptions.

Simply put, contingency planning should provide a plan B in case things go south. Experts in crisis management learn everything there is about the way the company works and then create the contingency plan by:

  1. Pinpointing the potential risks. Assessing every inside and outside threat to operations: natural disasters (or just bad weather), power outages, equipment failure, security breaches, losing key staff, disruptions in the supply chain, or even city planning. 
  2. Understanding the impact of each disruptor. What happens if there’s a power outage? Or if someone hacks the customer database? Knowing the consequences of each disruption will help prioritize the issues and find the best possible remedies.
  3. Creating action plans for each risk. There should be a pre-made procedure with a detailed list of steps, and a chain of command in place for each event — before the issue appears.
  4. Educate your staff. To ensure everyone is on board with these measures, pay close attention to pre-boarding and onboarding your workers properly, so they can actively participate in risk mitigation from day one.

At first glance, there’s nothing wrong with traditional contingency planning as laid out here — in theory.

In practice?

Well, we all remember the COVID pandemic — it is estimated that about 200,000 US businesses shut down in the first year of the pandemic.

Granted, it would be unfair to claim business owners could or should have predicted such large-scale misfortune or even imagine such drastic scenarios. 

But more often than we’d like, fairness has nothing to do with how things work out. 

When you can’t rely on optimism and good karma or predict what may harm your endeavours, two things will help you stay afloat:

  • Staying alert and responsive so you can act quickly whenever needed;
  • Creating an organisation with built-in resilience — or even better, is “antifragile”.

The Black Swan and the Antifragile

In his earlier book, The Black Swan, Taleb remarked that everything around us is shaped by highly unpredictable events and uncertainty, much like what the pandemic brought upon us. 

In Antifragile, Taleb outlines the characteristics of antifragile people, the ones that thrive in the world as described in The Black Swan.

An antifragile person not only remains resilient when facing adversity but grows stronger and improves. They aren’t afraid to take risks, seek challenges, and flourish in volatile situations.

How to Build an Antifragile Business?

Not all the same rules will apply when you try to translate antifragility to the business ecosystem. 

Unnecessary risk-taking and stress should be avoided, as it may impact the lives of people who aren’t ready to risk their employment for the sake of innovation.

Here’s how to build some antifragility into your organisation by using the lessons and advice from Taleb’s work:

  • Practice poverty — This stoic practice can help you do more with less. Imagine your resources are much slimmer, and you’ll be able to enhance your creative thinking and develop cheaper solutions. Practising poverty can help you prepare for less profitable seasons and better use your finances.
  • Pick a challenging competitor — Taleb isn’t the only author advising people to challenge stronger competitors. American neuroscientist Andrew D. Huberman also advises people to pick lofty goals to grow, improve, and achieve goals.
  • Learn “in the wild” — Language learning is best done “in the wild” when you expose yourself to an uncomfortable environment where no one knows your language, just the one you want to learn. Similarly, learning in authentic surroundings can provide you with deeper knowledge.
  • Create an antifragile balance — Play safe in one field, but dedicate a small share of resources to make some wild moves and more risky investments. This way you make the potential losses smaller, but allow massive fortune in. Never gamble with what you can’t afford to lose!
  • Trial and error — Taleb claims that “tinkering” is the best way to figure things out and discover a huge potential in hiding.

The Lucretius problem doesn’t imply that you should anticipate everything that can go wrong. Instead, it suggests that you should be the type of person (or here, an organisation) that can endure whatever may happen — and use it to your advantage.

Why You Should Focus on the People Element - Especially on Frontline Staff

You can’t build an antifragile organisation without the right people.

It wouldn’t be wise to reject all the job candidates who aren’t as passionate about disruption as you are. Luckily, they don’t need to follow this philosophy themselves, but the way they work needs to be compatible with the antifragility principles. 

While building an antifragile enterprise, you should pay special attention to deskless workers.

Frontline team members are the first to notice and face the issues in their raw form and relevant context — more than higher management, some would argue. First responders need to have quick wit, the ability to assess the situation and act fast, and remain responsive at all times. Being present on the scene also lets them learn in the wild each day. 

It is clear that a deskless workforce needs to be antifragile or at least well-equipped to maintain the strength of the whole business. 

How Mercu Can Help

Mercu is a platform that provides just the equipment you need to build a workplace resilient to unexpected troubles:

  • The whole platform is chat-based and facilitates fast communication across the whole organisation;
  • With as many channels as you need, frontline staff can quickly get in touch with supervisors and other team members relevant to immediate problem-solving;
  • Knowledge is dispersed in handy bite-sized pieces of information: quick to access and easy to memorise, which is especially effective for onboarding

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