Post-traumatic growth: Antifragility in an era of digital revolution

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it became very clear that everyone and everything can be affected, and many things that were taken for granted had to be reinvented. Examples include the way we shop, spend our holidays, maintain social contacts, meet, collaborate, enjoy (or not) sports and culture, and how we organize education and healthcare. We have experienced the impact of innovation in almost every aspect of life — and because of the urgency, these changes happened with an unprecedent pace.

Looking at the innovation process, one could conclude that the time to make the step from proof-of-concept to proof-of-business has shrunk enormously. Usually, this last mile represents the biggest obstacle to turning ideas into value. However, we have now demonstrated that it is indeed possible to achieve change without being the victim of barriers that we created for ourselves, resulting in organized stupidity.

Paul Iske

Chief Failure Officer at Institute of Brilliant Failures, Chairman Personalised Healthcare Catalyst Foundation, Professor Open Innovation at Maastricht University, Owner KnocoM

How did we do that? What can we learn about innovation from this period?

First of all, it is clear that many of the changes were possible because of digitization: online collaboration, meetings, doctor visits, social contacts, classes, etc. Only a few years ago, these alternatives would not have been possible.

However, technological innovation itself is not enough. If we only pay attention to technology and forget how important it is to address the human and organizational aspects of innovation, we will again encounter the well-known formula: NT+OO=EOO.

(New Technology applied in an Old Organization, results in an Expensive Old Organization)

Due to the crisis and the immediate disruption it caused, we had to accept that many things needed to change in the way we work and live together, at least for the time being. It resulted in a massive field lab, discovering things that worked, things that didn’t, and things that should be there only as long as the crisis lasts.

This pressure cooker pushed us to grow our ability to innovate at a rapid pace. We quickly implement and scale what works, and we learn from the (brilliant) failures.

This is a great example of antifragility (things that gain from disorder), a concept developed by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, best known for his famous book The Black Swan. Indeed, COVID-19 can also be seen as black swan: a major event which happens without us being able to predict or to control it, but with great impact on our lives.

Antifragility is a property of systems that increase in capability to thrive as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures. A good metaphor for antifragility is the Hydra, the Greek mythological creature. When any of the Hydra’s many heads is chopped off, two grow back in its place.

The term antifragility comes at the end of the scale ranging from fragile (breaking under impact), resilient (after impact returning to the original state), robustness (not being impacted at all) and antifragile (growing during and after impact).

Therefore, a positive side effect of the current crisis could be that we have discovered how we can turn innovation into an antifragile process in two ways:

  • First, the pressure has forced us to combine technological (primarily digital) innovation and social innovationto deliver solutions that not only enable us to deal with our current challenges, but are also of great value in the future. Some of these outcomes were anticipated, but the change has been accelerated because of the urgency.
  • Second, innovation itself has become more antifragile. Earlier, we mentioned the last mile that hampers the rapid take-up of innovation due to various self-imposed barriers like rules and regulations, guidelines, financing models, personal resistance to change, or organizational barriers. These all contribute to our collective immune system for innovations. Don’t forget that best practices — often resulting in rules and guidelines — are most often based on evidence obtained in the past.
Can our learnings from the past still be used as best practice in the present and future?


We also had to accept trial and error, because the most effective way to find new solutions is often to apply learnings from failing fast. This fits very nicely with the mission of the Institute of Brilliant Failures, which aims to create an environment where people accept failures as a gateway to learning and later success.

I hope that we will be able to appreciate the insights that we have gained from the crisis and that innovation will help us to grow stronger and thrive. We have seen that the innovation process itself can also be antifragile — by accepting failures as an integral part of development and reducing organized stupidity, our self-inflicted pain!


Paul Iske

Paul Iske is professor at the School of Business and Economics, University Maastricht, Netherlands, focusing on Open Innovation and Business Venturing. He is Visiting professor at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, on Knowledge-driven Innovation. Paul is founder and CFO (Chief Failure Officer) of the ‘Institute of Brilliant Failures’ (www.brilliantfailures.com), with the mission to highlight the importance of experimentation to achieve paradigm shifts and breakthrough innovation.

He is an international author, consultant and speaker on innovation, entrepreneurship, knowledge management and creativity. He spent 18 years as Chief Dialogues Officer, Head of Innovation and Knowledge Management at ABN AMRO Bank. Before that, he finished his PhD in Theoretical Physics and fulfilled a number of jobs in Strategy and R&D at Shell.

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