Anti-Fragile and Scouting (Part 3)

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This is the third part of a series commenting on what I have been reading in the works of Nassim Taleb, beginning with his book Anti-Fragile, part of the Incerto series.


In the first article, I outlined his biography and introduced the questions of “What is the opposite of fragile? Are your scouts, scout parents, or scouters fragile? What are your duties as a scout leader in handling this matter?”

In the second article, I defined anti-fragile as strengthing in face of adversity. I suggested that resilience is not the antonym of “fragile.”

Up to this point, I have focused on making the scouts anti-fragile, stronger for having faced adversity. Let’s look at the concept of anti-fragile as a criterion for assessing the quality of your unit’s planning and programming.

Taleb questions the engineering world’s emphasis on efficiency. Let’s assume the definition of efficiency is doing just enough to complete the task with just enough resources and time. No wasted motion, effort, time, or resources. What is the effect in today’s world of being ever more efficient?

When planning goes well, the planner looks like a genius. No waste. No muss. No fuss. The trailer is packed so efficiently just the perfect amount of food is loaded. There is no excess weight to slow the trailer down. Every scout finds just the equipment he needs to do his tasks. It’s perfect.

But what happens if some of the planning fails? What if there was no weather report of a major rainstorm? To have been truly efficient, the planner took only what was in the plan. Since no weather report predicted a rainstorm, the efficient planner takes no shelters or tarps to keep the weather out when cooking. People get cold and wet and maybe are a little hungry.

So clearly a planner can’t be truly efficient. He has to do some contingency planning. Is there such a thing as an efficient contingency-planner? To plan for contingency often requires extra effort or extra equipment. Maybe you take extra tarps or more raingear for the possible but unpredicted contingencies. This is not efficient. It is redundant.

So how do know what redundancies are worthwhile and which are just inefficient?

This is where the concept of anti-fragile becomes valuable.

If you are planning a simple car camping weekend away from scout reservation shelters which focuses on scoutcraft, you need to design a plan that survives foreseeable but unknown problems, like rainstorms.

How many tarps do you take? Well, enough to keep the elements away from the scoutcrafts that would cause the lessons to be impossible or difficult to teach. Maybe one to cover the campfire station. Another to cover the grubmaster and his tools. Another (or repurposed from an earlier use) to play cards in the rain in the evening. You take what you need to allow the intended and foreseeable tasks to be completed in light of possible problems.

This is not efficient or redundant. It makes the plan anti-fragile.

This is great way to explain to the scouts when items should be packed. It teaches them how to think through problems.

This effort at strengthening your program by finding solutions to foreseeable problems is not rocket science. Putting a label on it to facilitate explanations is important. People learn by putting labels on things in small chunks. Then they think through the small chunks utnil theu become bigger chunks. Just like in geometry class, you learn that there are three undefinable terms that are the basis for the rest of the class: point, line, and plane. These three concepts lead discussions of parallels and intersections, angles, squares, triangles (in all their forms), etc. Each of these newly labeled concepts allow every increasing complicated analysis and labeling.

Labeling this planning goal as “anti-fragile” allows more sophisticated analysis later. We will take a look at some of those more sophisticated analyses next Saturday.