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Lessons in resilience from 2021’s most innovative companies

They know that disorder is the new normal, and they’re acting accordingly.

Lessons in resilience from 2021’s most innovative companies
[Photo: Rohan Ali; photographed exclusively for Fast Company, courtesy of the LA Lakers]
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It’s not enough, in 2021, for businesses to be resilient. As many search for ways to manage the ongoing disruptions caused by COVID-19, a growing number believe that disorder is the new normal. They are embracing it and making it part of their processes.

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Essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb explores this phenomenon in his 2012 book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder,” he writes. “Antifragility,” as he terms this way of being, “is beyond resilience . . . The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” President Joe Biden campaigned on an economic recovery plan echoing this sentiment, called “Build Back Better,” a phrase often used in natural-disaster recovery.

Camille François, chief innovation officer at Graphika [Photo: Taylor Kay Johnson]
There are few corporate playbooks for antifragility, partly because a century of management science has trained leaders to make order of chaos using backward-­looking models. Luckily, Fast Company’s annual look at the World’s Most Innovative Companies is rich with examples of organizations that have transcended resiliency and thrived. Here are just a few examples:

Empower employees and move fast

When hospitals faced supply shortages, employees of 3D-printing company Carbon (No. 5, Manufacturing) dreamed up a printable swab for COVID-19 testing. “Within a three-to-four-week period, we went from idea to testing in clinical settings” to production, says CEO Ellen Kullman.

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Embrace tech

The World’s Most Innovative Companies don’t use technology as a substitute for the analog—they use it to make experiences better. The NBA (No. 1, Sports) has enhanced its broadcasts with holograms and improved cameras, features that aren’t going away. While racing to develop a vaccine, drugmaker Pfizer (No. 1, Biotech, with partner Bio­NTech) outfitted workers with augmented reality goggles and software to help diagnose equipment issues, often avoiding the risk of dispatching an in-person repair crew at a time of social distancing.

Anticipate customer needs

Shopify (No. 1, Retail) has launched loan programs to help small retailers scale, premium subscription services to help larger players expand, and two-day shipping to help everyone compete with Amazon Prime. Last year, it enabled pandemic-stricken mom-and-pop stores to get online.

In fact, this year’s edition is filled with examples of companies whose antifragility helps their customers to stay afloat right now. Perhaps these innovators will inspire their clients and others to think beyond resiliency tomorrow.