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The opposite of fragile

Robert Stöhr
Tribe Lead

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it Antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the Antifragile gets better!”

In other words: where the fragile breaks under stress and the robust bears the stress, the antifragile flourishes and improves upon itself under stress caused by change, uncertainty and complexity. The concept was coined by Nicholas Taleb in his book “Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder”, part of the Incerto quintology that also brought us “Black Swan” and “Fooled by Randomness”.

The organizational champions of tomorrow are the ones who embrace change today and improve through trial and error. Understanding what antifragility is and how to apply its principals in your context will make all the difference.

Let’s make antifragility concrete. A fictional example is the comic book character “The Hulk”. The more people mess with him – shoot him with bullets, rockets and so on – the stronger he gets.

Real-life examples include your own body: as you exercise and put your body under stress, your physical condition improves beyond the point needed for the exercise. Your body overshoots and prepares itself in anticipation of potentially greater stress.

The Streisand effect, where the desire to kill an idea actually helps spread the idea, is another example: think of the popularity of banned books and movies or the effect of disallowing public demonstrations. Repressing a demonstration or movement, to a certain extent, will often make the demonstration or movement grow in numbers and public support.

Another real life example: learning a new language is best done in the wild, where you often fail miserably to make yourself understood in the beginning. Reading textbooks and taking tests is far less effective.

Contrary to the above, human systems tend to implement this concept very poorly. We always fight the last war, we build our nuclear plants so they can withstand the worst earthquake we’ve ever witnessed, we stress-test our financial system using parameters from the last greatest systemic crash. We build machines that are robust and incapable of change. We talk about running teams and organizations like ‘well-oiled machines’ assembled from the best parts (e.g. people). Is there no better way?

Since we are living in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world, aiming for antifragility is a must. The success stories of tomorrow are being written today by those who embrace change and continuously reinvent themselves.

The table demonstrates the difference between mechanic systems that are fragile by nature and organic systems, complex in nature, that are intrinsically antifragile.

Organic, complex systems withstand time and improve themselves in new contexts. They share the following attributes: built-in redundancy and a large diversity of different subsystems. Within subsystems (agents) there is high cohesion, with loose coupling between these subsystems. Note that these same principles also apply to technical systems: these are the base of microservice architectures and are further built upon in the principels of chaos engineering.

While one such agent can be fragile in essence, it is the combination of agents exhibiting the above properties which makes the whole system antifragile. Pressure in the economy system weeds out bad companies, making room for new champions. Species in nature evolve; they come and go in a race for the survival of the fittest, bringing life to Earth for more than 4 billion years and ensuring that life will still be around for years ahead.

We need to look at organizations as complex living systems: your company is a complex adaptive system. Let’s explore how we can leverage the above concepts for teams and organizations.

Teams that deliver value and solve problems autonomously benefit dramatically from intra-group diversity. This diversity comes in many forms: diversity in backgrounds, opinions, approaches and skill sets. Later in this report is an article by Emma Braeye, VP People at In The Pocket, with more to say about this diversity. By ensuring your cross-functional team has all the skills needed to create end-to-end value, dependencies on others are limited and the overall lead time decreases.

Our cross-functional teams show high cohesion: they consist of interdependent people collaborating and working towards a shared goal. These symbiotic relationships distribute accountability: everyone is responsible for the solutions that are being created.

Loose-coupling of teams is another way to limit dependencies. Each team has the autonomy to make decisions in the pursuit of the company goals. With autonomy, however, come responsibility and accountability. Creating a shared vision and setting clear business goals are ways to determine the constraints in which autonomy can thrive. Through this aligned autonomy, we ensure that teams are working towards the global optimum instead of merely a local one.

If you build in redundancy, unforeseen events that destroy a subsystem don’t mean the end of the entire system. Within a team, redundancy can be created by having skill sets distributed across different team members. The more roles that exist and are needed to create value, the more fragile the team.

This is easily identifiable by determining the ‘bus factor’ for your team. A project’s bus factor is the number equal to the number of team members who would put the project in jeopardy if they were run over by a bus. Avoid this by supporting cross-competence initiatives and developing T-shaped and PI-shaped profiles. Co-locating team members and ensuring that relevant information is shared also improve redundancy.

Redundancy of teams within the organization is also beneficial. Find the sweet spot between useful redundancy and organizational inefficiency.

Examples of antifragility can be found all around is, in nature and in the organizations we live in. This article describes just a few of the principles and practices you can apply that will benefit your organization. Keep these principles of diversity, redundancy, high cohesion and loose coupling in mind when evolving your team and organization and you will be well on your way to increasing antifragility and strengthening your organization for the future.

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