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Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker.
What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.
Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, 1888
It was a cold January night on the Hoboken, NJ side of the Hudson River. But I was warm inside the auditorium at Stevens Institute of Technology where a packed crowd was there to hear Black Swan author Nassim Nicholas Taleb give his first public lecture on the subject of anti-fragility.
Taleb, famous for teasing his listeners with humor and his contrarian views, was in fine form that night. . .
Taleb: Is this microphone working? Why is it that technology fails me when I come to talk about fragility? (Audience laughter) My first rule is that anything that is called efficient typically is fragile. Take Amazon’s Kindle. If you are upset that the person next to you has a Kindle, you can pour coffee on it and see what happens. Whereas if you take a book, if you pour coffee on it, you just have to wait a bit for it to dry.
We cannot truly measure the “efficiency” of something unless you see what comes with it. And fragility comes with it.
So let me ask: What is the opposite of fragile?
Taleb: Who says ‘robust’?
Audience: Fails gracefully
Taleb: OK, what about “resilient”? Whenever I hear “resilient”, I just hate that word -- for good reason.
Now let’s say you have a package. And this is a wedding gift, a glass vase, you are sending to your cousin in Australia. So you go to the Hoboken post office and you send it. And what do you write on the package? “Fragile, Handle with Care.” Agree?
Now suppose you wanted to put the opposite instruction on that package. You would not write “Robust” on the package. So what would you say?
You guys [in the audience] who are in engineering, what’s the opposite of negative?
Taleb: Positive, that’s right. Even in New Jersey. (Laughter)
So the negative of fragility would not be “robust”. Maybe you would write something on the package like, “I Don’t Care”.
Fragile is the lower bound. Unharmed is the upper bound Agree? At the upper bound, the vase is never going to be in better condition than it is right now. So the lower bound is unharmed and the upper bound is also unharmed. That’s the definition of something that is robust.
The real opposite of “fragile” — and there’s no word in any language — would be something that would benefit from mishandling. It would gain from disorder, stress, and being treated roughly. The label of the package should say, “Please Mishandle.”
OK, so you now have the basic insight behind this new English word Taleb’s created. And as you’d expect, Taleb has just published his much anticipated book, Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, that expands on the theme in 544 pages.
Dan Baker: Taleb’s theory is brilliant because it has broad implications
for many human pursuits, but I wanted a telecom industry perspective on anti-fragility.
That’s why I asked Eric Priezkalns to lend his perspective.
Eric is the editor of talkRA and is the most prolific and most-followed blogger in revenue assurance today. Besides that, he’s a colleague whose advice I treasure and someone who I correspond with regularly by email. Eric, what’s your take on anti-fragility?
Eric Priezkalns: My thoughts immediately turn to Mother Nature. Take the pruning of a plant. Tomatoes don‘t require a lot of pruning, but pumpkins do well if pruned. And if you don’t prune the pumpkins, you’ll end up with lots of small ones, instead of the big ones that make great Halloween lanterns. In nature, there are some organisms that do best when worn down, eaten, and consumed. I mean, take a berry — the plant wants its berry to be eaten, because the seeds will be spread elsewhere. How’s that for anti-fragility? The plant does best if Mr. Goat comes along and munches on it!
Mother Nature's sister, Hurricane Sandy, came roaring through Pennsylvania only two weeks ago.
The 50 mile per hour winds fell many trees, which took down
power lines and blocked roads. The trees that fell were the big ones that
had grown ungainly. But the trees that survived -- though stressed by
the strong winds -- probably are in better shape now because Sandy knocked off
their weak branches.
Speaking of being knocked about, plenty of small businesses have been felled by the strong winds of the recession. But while many of those business owners suffered a big personal loss, their failure was probably short-lived. Many of them will kick the dust off their pants and start new ventures. They had dangerously overextended themselves in some way, but with their newfound wisdom they’ll build a stronger business next time.
So there are some rich metaphors here to nature and business ventures, but what I most want to explore is anti-fragility in the context of telecom careers.
Yes, at first glance, the safe course would seem to be to continue in your present career — to follow the well-trodden path. After all, that’s where your experience lies and where you’ve built up a long list of LinkedIn contacts.
But here’s the irony: the more stress you accept and the bigger and fresher the challenges you take on, the more you learn and the stronger you become. We look at stress as a negative, but it is also a positive. Nobody wants more stress than they can handle, but taking on stress is crucial to developing as a person and as a professional, and is vital to strengthening your career.
Forgive me, I’m going to make a pretty dark point but I think it’s helpful because I want to emphasize how important it is for individuals to manage risks for themselves as individuals, and to see themselves in a bigger context than their daily routines.
Telcos are big businesses, and between all the HR people in telcos, and all the training firms that service telcos, and all the recruitment consultants and everyone else, it’s easy for an employee to be taken down a career path. It might be hard for them to imagine being anything other than what they are today. They can become more and more specialized, and I certainly understand how that feels. If you want a negative word for it, you might also say they’re being ‘institutionalized’. That can happen in telcos because they’re big; you’re not likely to find that happening in small businesses.
But even though it is comfortable having a stable job with a good salary for twenty years, it is really fragile. There were a lot of shock waves when several long-serving employees of France Telecom, faced with redundancy, chose to take their own lives. I was really sorry to hear about that, but I also think some people drew the wrong conclusions.
Following those tragic suicides, many inferred that you had to be more sensitive when making people redundant. Now, redundancy is not a nice thing, but I thought something else had already gone wrong, irrespective of how the redundancies were handled. Decades of doing the same job had left these people unable to imagine a working life outside of France Telecom. So the issue wasn’t just the stress of being faced with redundancy, it was that they had been protected from stress for a long time. And that left them fragile — doubting their ability to adapt and prosper in a different role, in a different environment. So what I’m saying about managing risk in a telecoms career isn’t just some abstract triviality.
|In fact, you recently resigned as Director of Risk Management at QTel. So you’re in the midst of a career change yourself.|
If I’m honest, I came back to the UK to attempt a transition in my life, and I was conscious that maybe I could spend some time on my old pursuits whilst also finding some time for my new pursuits. In practice, the old pursuits keep generating lots and lots of opportunities, and I’m not making any time for the new pursuits. In a way, that’s great! I like being in demand. But it’s also terrible. If I don’t do different things, and stretch myself in new ways, I’m not taking the risks I wanted to take.
For example, somebody called me yesterday, asking me to come into London next week, to spend the day talking to people from a wide range of telcos. It was a bunch of guys who call themselves the ‘RAG’ -- the ‘Revenue Assurance Group’. Organized by Cartesian, it’s a group of British RA veterans who really know their jobs, through and through, and that means they feel good sitting around, sharing war stories about what they’ve been working on. They’ve been going at this for years, and it’s a pleasure to be in their company.
It was great to be at the RAG again. I had an easy time, because they asked me about blogging — I don‘t think I’d have anything interesting to tell them about doing RA! But it also reminded me of why I started blogging. When Cable & Wireless was restructured, I had been doing work all across the group, but that wasn’t possible any more. From then on, I would have to work for one half of the business, or the other half. I was so dispirited that I took redundancy instead. I started blogging and doing freelance consulting as a way to develop intellectual and creative muscles that had long lain dormant, and to create opportunities that I might not get otherwise.
In talking to the RAG, it occurred to me that you could apply the principles of risk management to what I had done personally. I was talking about the ways I had used blogging as an aid to managing my own risk, and as a way to take on more risk. That’s an important point I always want to drive home: the optimal risk isn’t the least risk. The optimal risk is the maximum risk that helps you to achieve your goals, and the least of all other kinds of risk. So if you want to work for 40 years, then maybe it’s a good idea to invest a little time and effort in staying agile, so you can change career if necessary.
As a risk manager, I empathize with why people don’t like to try different things. Not least, they may fail! And then you feel you wasted your time and effort. But it’s not a waste. Risk involves directing a scarce resource — for example, my time is a scarce resource — from a more straightforward option where I know what I’m doing, towards a different option where I don‘t know what I’m doing. But I won’t ever enjoy the different results if I don‘t take the risk.
To use Charles Handy’s language, since I left Cable & Wireless, I’ve tried to be a flea. Handy described himself as a flea, having previously been an elephant. The way he explained it, elephants are a metaphor for a career as an employee of a big business. In contrast, fleas bounce around from place to place. That makes fleas anti-fragile. They do better and better from change, whilst elephants are big creatures that are threatened by change. So if I combine Handy with Taleb’s thinking, we may say the elephant is robust, but it isn’t anti-fragile. My challenge right now is to become twice the flea I used to be. I want to double the places I will bounce to, but that means half as much time spent on the more familiar spots, like revenue assurance.
But don’t get me wrong. I’m talking a lot about applying risk principles to my own life, but I know the human heart isn’t a calculator. All this metaphorical language is a sign that I’m dealing with internal conflict. There are irrational parts of my mind that insist elephants take less risk than fleas. It’s hard to overcome those ways of thinking, even though I’ve spent years analysing the topic as rationally as I can.
Taking the anti-fragility theme to heart, what should an RA professional be
doing to move the needle towards less fragility in the larger telecom organization?
Should checking for fragility be added to the RA mission statement? Or
should that job be left to the enterprise risk people?
I mean, the normal role of business assurance is to find errors and outliers in data — and to take steps to reduce revenue risks. Yet, if you follow Taleb’s teaching, you probably should be telling the business to take more risks: “Go ahead, spill some revenue on the floor. You are playing it too safe and not doing enough tinkering — not taking enough risks to grow the business.”
You’re asking me a very tough question. Let me begin with what sounds like a digression. I believe in professionalism. But professionalism only matters if it’s rare. If every goof is a professional then nobody is a professional. Climbing a mountain is an achievement if the mountain is steep and tall. Don‘t take a hillock, rename it a "mountain", and expect praise because you climbed a "mountain".
What’s that got to do with fragility? Well, suppose we go back in time and imagine that somebody set up the Global Blacksmith’s Professional Association — I’m sure you can work out where my thoughts are with this. Perhaps the association trains people to be good at making horseshoes. But it doesn’t matter how good you are at making horseshoes, if Henry Ford is about to open his factory and soon everyone will be driving cars. Now, even after Ford sells his automobiles, there will still be the need for some blacksmiths, so I’m not going to say that it’s wrong to be a blacksmith. But it’s daft to think that there’s safety in numbers. Whoop-de-doop: you’ve got ten thousand blacksmiths chasing seventy-five jobs. But I’d argue a real professional, even if trained as a blacksmith, also knows how to differentiate themselves, so they can keep on providing services to people who want them, even when there is a big change in markets and demands. And that’s the same for RA people too.
Maybe we’re training too many people to do CDR reconciliations. I really think that. Not only are there too many people trained to do it, but demand for CDR recs is going to fall. It will fall because of the kinds of factors always pointed out by guys like David Leshem — because retail pricing won’t be as complicated and it’ll be less of a differentiator for telcos. It will fall because automation will improve, meaning you need fewer people to manage the RA systems. Needing fewer people to do CDR recs is bad, if you’re one of the people who can’t do anything else. But there’s plenty of other ways to improve telcos and make them more efficient. The thing is, the really clever ways to improve telcos aren’t going to be easy to generalize.
People shouldn’t try to solve career challenges by joining the Global Blacksmith’s Professional Association, or the Global Risk Manager’s Professional Association, or the Whatever Whatever Professional Association. That kind of cookie-cutter training is about manufacturing a lot of people who look the same. That’s great for the guy selling the training, but it can be terrible for the person who receives it. RA people have access to data. If they’re smart, they’ll find their own ways to create value from looking at that data, and the way they create value may be specific to their company. And that’s good for risk management, both for the telco, and for the employee.
|Eric, readers of talkRA know full well that you have strong views on the RA profession. You openly praise some and criticize others in the business assurance field. I know that your fans appreciate you for speaking candidly and for not being afraid to ruffle a few feathers for the sake of the larger flock.|
Before we go any further, I don’t think I’ve got any “fans”. I just think there’s a fair few people who think like I do, but sometimes it’s not so easy to say so out loud. I’ve felt that myself, plenty of times. I know I go against so-called conventional wisdom on a lot of things. But it’s because, in ideological terms, I’m a meritocrat more than I’m anything else. Reward the best guy the most, the second best guy the second most, etc etc. And when I say "reward", I mean give them things that they want to receive, not things that somebody else wants to give (which may not be the same thing). If I could hand out rewards, I’d gladly play the part of Santa Claus, though I can’t do much but throw some praise and recognition the way of people who have impressed me. That’s one of the pleasing things about running talkRA. At other times I must sound like Scrooge, because I don’t like to see people receiving rewards when they don’t deserve them!
What I want to say to RA people is that they shouldn’t wait for people inside or outside their company to give them a rubber-stamp of approval, or tell them what they need to do. They have to bust down the doors in their own company, and show the value of what they can do. And it’s those guys that I love most — the real innovators. You don’t find innovation by setting up a professional association. A professional association can occur because things have already settled down and become routine. So there’s a paradox. The innovators may struggle to get the credit they deserve, because there’s nobody to appreciate what they’ve achieved. And that’s why I’m drawn to doing this paradoxical thing, of first building up pioneering activities like RA and then ripping them down, so they don’t turn into institutions that constrain us.
|Eric, how can you light a fire under an RA or business assurance person and make this antifragility concept real? What can be done to motivate people? Who’s going to carry the torch?|
Only a minority of telco people do really great RA work. But let’s face facts: their motivation comes from within; they don‘t get much incentive from their employers. When we do a great job, then nobody may notice. In fact, we may be punished! Why do I say that? From my experience of telcos and management, I’ve seen the same pattern several times — the bigger the project, the more likely it will be successful. Yeah, I know that made no sense. Big projects are complicated, may fail etc. But that’s not what I observe. What I observe is that the bigger something is, the more commitment is needed at the outset, the larger the budget and so forth, then the more everybody is required to say the results were right at the end. The bigger the project, the more people are committed to ensuring it is a success — or seen as a success. And the easiest way to engineer success is to take whatever outcome you got, and then you call that "success". So the sure-fire way to succeed is to be a big-shot running big projects with the big budgets on the big outside suppliers. And that’s true of RA too, although RA is only little when compared to the really big stuff.
|How can this business assurance meritocracy you talk about be created?|
I don‘t know how to do it, but I’d like the world to include an X-ray technology, so we could look into a company and see who really was doing the good work. And then we’d give that guy a big shout out, just to reward him for doing so well. And he’s probably a guy with no budget, getting no attention, but being really ingenious and developing things that we should all emulate.
So that’s me wanting to be the meritocratic Santa Claus, giving people a shout-out on talkRA. Mostly you get to see me being Scrooge, because that’s easier to do. You don‘t need a fantastic X-ray machine to spot the guys who praise themselves too much.
You know, maybe if anybody’s going to invent the kind of X-ray technology I’m talking about, maybe it’s RA guys. Why? Because we’re talking about seeing things, and RA guys should be leading the way at seeing things that nobody else sees, because of how they’re looking at the company’s data.
So I agree with you bringing this round to anti-fragility. There’s a lot of big businesses that don‘t have a clue what they’re doing or why. And that means they don’t have a clue who’s doing it well and who’s doing it badly. And that means they don‘t have a clue what they should be rewarding more, and who they should be firing. But it’s not hard to see why they have that problem. They use the same broken metaphor as everyone else. Life complicated? Things are hard to understand? Want that new car but don’t do anything that clearly merits it? Fine! We got the solution! Shove everything in a black box, shake it around, and take out whatever you like. I’ve seen many an exec running their companies like that. Even if I don’t have all the solutions, we won’t find any solutions unless we start identifying the problems. Mostly that’s what I’ve been doing!
One of my favourite philosophers was Diogenes of Sinope. In many ways, he was a cantankerous, difficult man. I don’t think he ever solved a philosophical problem, but he sure knew how to point them out. One of the things be famously did was walking down the street, in the middle of the day, holding a lantern. It’s the middle of the day — why was he holding a lantern?! People would stop him, asking him what he was doing. His reply: “I’m looking for an honest man.” It’s a stunt, but it also makes a point. Philosophers can sit around and muse on the fine points of what is the truth, but their answers are not much help if we can’t do something as basic as calling out somebody for straightforward dishonesty.
|When you talk about RA professionals these days, I think the boundary goes way beyond the telecom enterprise. Especially at tier 2, 3, and 4 carriers, the expertise may reside in a non-employee contractor, a managed service provider, or a consultant, who comes in every year or so to refresh the program with new ideas. Is the weighted center of RA expertise moving to these non-employee experts, or are you saying that RA expertise across the board is declining?|
I’ll try to sympathize with RA people, even if they’re not developing their careers. A lot of them have no external stimulus which encourages them to grow, to develop, to be better. They get no reward for taking risks and trying to do new things, better things etc. So RA becomes just another entitlement department in a big business. Turn up, press the buttons, and you’re entitled to your pay. And I think being a ‘professional’ is part of the problem.
I don’t want to see ‘professionals’ who congratulate themselves for climbing the same hillock, over and over. I want to see the real pros taking on mountains. And if they fail, we’ll learn more from their failure than we’ll ever learn from a course on how to climb a hillock.
How has it ended up like this? I’d say the seeds of the problem were often sown at the outset. Many RA jobs went to people who were a long long long way down the telco’s merit list. Are we surprised with what they’ve done to the job? And who came up with the job spec that said RA could be done by people so far down the merit list? That’s right. It was bigger people, holding bigger budgets, who also like to believe in Santa Claus but don‘t want to admit that they’re relying on Santa to close the gap between their promises and their delivery.
I think people got tired of saying it, but there was a time when a good few — a stout minority — would say the job of RA was to put itself out of business. That was always the problem. Those people were right, but putting yourself out of business isn‘t much of a reward, unless there’s a bigger business that can recognize what you’ve done and set you to the task of putting yourself out of business on an even bigger scale. Are there bigger businesses that need to put themselves out of business? Of course! RA is a tiny speck, compared to the huge businesses-within-businesses that you find in telcos.
There’s plenty of execs who need to be put out of business. How about a service so good that you need a fraction of the Customer Services people? How about market intelligence so good, that there’s no need for the guesswork and surveying that most people think is synonymous to marketing? And then there’s even bigger businesses that need to be put out of business, culminating in the biggest business of all — the business of governing! But now I get ahead of myself.
But putting yourself out of business — that’ll only appeal to a peculiar minority... like kids who don‘t want toys from Santa. You’ve got to really have an appetite for risk, if you’re going to be so devoted to doing a job that you end up eliminating the business case for having someone do that job.
|How can RA move to this meritocracy you talk about?|
Above all, we need to think like scientists. Short term experiments may yield us nothing, but longer term, if we stay faithful and truly trust the scientific method, it will deliver leaps of knowledge that can bring great value to the organizations we work for.
The philosopher, Karl Popper, he had a very interesting view of science. He thought there was never enough evidence to prove a theory right, but that you could find enough evidence to prove it wrong. So scientists, when performing experiments, are looking for counter-examples to their hypothesis. If the results fit the hypothesis, they stick with the hypothesis on a contingent basis — but they’re always willing to get rid of the hypothesis if they start finding counter-examples. It’s that change of thinking which leads us to talk about Einstein’s theory of relativity, even though people used to talk about Newton’s laws of motion.
Now, think about that. Being a scientist is risky. You never get positive proof. And every time you do an experiment, you might undermine your hypothesis. So why do they keep risking so much, for so little gain? Because the gain isn’t little. The gain is huge. Progressively eliminating flawed ways of thinking is why the scientific method is so incredibly powerful.
Scientists get results because they measure. Because they look at the data. Because they don‘t cheat. They use good methods. Now, they may not be the kinds of methods that make a scientist rich. But heck, we’re all a lot richer thanks to science. In fact, scientists are the anti-Santas. There’s no mystery with them. If they see a black box, they invent an X-ray machine so they can tell what’s going on inside. They work out the connections between what goes in and what comes out.
But when you try to apply scientific principles to RA, those techniques are still neglected. Math? Logic? Peer review (a.k.a. transparency)? I thought if we could better understand the unusual and sometimes unpredictable behaviour of complex systems that serve to charge and bill customers, that would be a good starting point.
We had all the right ingredients — huge volumes of data, sufficient processing power etc etc. And if we could crack it for that kind of complex system, then we could deal with more complex systems, and even more complex systems, and so forth. But after a decade of RA, we’re still at the level of talking a load of unscientific hooey. There’s no transparency, there’s bugger all math and let’s not even pretend we give a damn about logic.
For all the data warehouses, many people still don‘t seem to have any actual data (or else, they don’t know what data is, so can‘t tell if they have). So what are we doing? We’re walking around and talking and asking people for their gut feeling. That is about as useful as going back a few hundred years and asking everyone’s gut feel on whether there are witches or not. Superstitious nonsense. Pah. Humbug.
So, I admit it, I’m asking RA people to take risks with their career. But what is their alternative? To become a professional blacksmith, hoping they have a long career not interrupted by the unanticipated arrival of Henry Ford, a negative black swan? I’m not going to predict what telecoms will be like in 10 years, but it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage scenarios where you need a lot less traditional RA people, or where there’s a lot fewer traditional telcos.
Should RA people look for safety in numbers? That’s the oldest miscalculation of risk that man has ever known. Should RA people start looking at their data and start coming up with new hypotheses, even though they’re not paid to do that? Yes, absolutely. That’s the safest and best thing they can do. Don’t wait for someone else to find value. They should look into the data and form their ideas about how to increase the value of their companies. And they should be unconstrained in where they look. If they have the data, they should be prepared to look for anything. Maybe they can find a way to cut costs that nobody thought of. Maybe they can find patterns of network usage that nobody ever looked for. And when they look, they should come up with ideas, and then be serious enough to shoot them down if they’re wrong. Put the data in charge, like a scientist does.
I honestly believe that, if most RA people do as I suggest, they will fail, and fail, and fail again. But that isn’t the point. Like I said to RAG, when I started using social networking to try to achieve some of my RA goals, I wasn’t an instant success. I had failure after failure after failure before the relative success of the blog. And like you said about anti-fragility, entrepreneurs suffer failure after failure after failure, before they succeed. What’s so good about failure? We learn from it. And that’s what I think RA people have the chance to do — perhaps a unique chance. They have a chance to learn from their company’s data. They have a chance to develop new ways of making decisions. And because they’ll get things wrong, but they’ll be good at measuring the results, the cost of failure is reduced.
That’s the way forward for decision-making in telcos, and I still believe it. Understanding the data doesn’t just make us robust, it makes us anti-fragile, because it empowers transformation. And RA people should be looking for career paths where their understanding of the real story — the story in the data — turns them into leaders of transformation. How’s that for a different career path? How’s that for jumping from a straightjacket view of microscopically small risks, and upskilling yourself with a 21st century conceptual toolset that is fit to solve far more problems? It’s possible, though hard. But given the possible gains, I think it’s well worth the risk.
Thanks, Eric. In your last comments, I detect an almost religious dedication to the principles of data analytics and scientific investigation. Well done.
Your advice echoes a favorite inspirational passage from 19th century philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Most men gamble with Fortune, and gain all, and lose all, as her wheel rolls.
But do thou leave as unlawful these winnings, and deal with Cause and Effect, the chancellors of God. In the Will work and acquire, and you shall chain the wheel of Chance, and no longer sit in fear from her rotations.
A political victory, a rise in stocks, the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for you. Do not believe it.
Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.
Self-Reliance, Essays: First Series (1841)
Copyright 2012 Black Swan Telecom Journal