I believe it is possible to create an organization based on the concepts presented by Nassim Taleb in his book Antifragile – Things that gain from disorder.
Want to know how?
First, let’s present the concept in a practical way. Something is antifragile when it benefits from what is stressful and unexpected, transforming into something better than before.
Taking the preferred example of Nassim Taleb, the bones get stronger when subjected to stress. If you work a season at a moving company you will see your bones getting stronger and stronger. And if you get rid of all kinds of impact while vacationing on a space station, your bones will come back much weaker.
Knowing the meaning of antifragile, how can we apply the ideas of Nassim Taleb in a company or organization?
In the table below extracted from the book, we have important clues about how antifragility occurs.
|Mechanic, not complex||Organic, complex|
|Needs repairs and ongoing maintenance||Self-Repair|
|Hates randomness||Loves randomness (small variations)|
|No need for recovery||There is a need for recovery among stressors|
|Little or no interdependence||High degree of interdependence|
|Stressful agents cause material fatigue||Absence of stressors causes atrophy|
|Aging with wear||Gets older with non-use|
|Under-compensation with impacts||Overcompensation with impacts|
|Time brings only senescence||Time brings aging and senescence|
It’s clear from the table that complex systems as living organisms are intrinsically antifragile. What is mechanical is fragile. What is alive is antifragile.
So can we throw away that analogy that companies are like machines that need to be assembled with the best parts (people), oiled and repaired? Yes, it’s a good start, but it’s far from generating antifragility.
We need to look at organizations as living systems.
When we speak of a living organism, we are talking about a complex adaptive system. And then we come to the following conclusion:
Your company is a complex adaptive system, and treating it this way promotes antifragility.
I’ll explain what this means.
To get right to the point, I lend the definition of Prof. Scott Page. A complex adaptive system consists of agents that are:
We are still in an abstract field. Let us deepen and bring to our context.
There is a great chance that you already believe that your company has agents (people) who have these qualities. The point is, you can promote these qualities instead of restricting them. Catalyze, not create barriers.
Translating these four ideas, we have:
Every human being is unique. But it’s amazing how we create barriers in organizations that repel different ones. Those who think differently, who have different perspectives. We are afraid of conflict and the clash of ideas.
So the first tip is obvious: don’t create a selection process that excludes so many differences. Of course, with great diversity comes the need for mechanisms to deal with dissent and controversy. But this is another topic.
Another tip is that teams that need to deliver value and solve problems need intra-group diversity. That’s why squads and multidisciplinary are becoming so popular.
In an interdependent relationship people are both accountable and dependent on each other.
If many decisions within the organization depend on the approval of few people, you are strengthening dependency, not interdependence.
Therefore autonomy to make decisions in the pursuit of the purpose of the organization needs to be stimulated. It’s not a careless and inconsistent autonomy. There are clear and explicit accountabilities. Decreasing hierarchy and distributing authority is possible. See here how.
There must be room for free interaction within an organization. The formation of silos is the biggest obstacle in strengthening connections between people. Here organizational design becomes more than relevant.
Another important thing to analyze the degree of connectivity is to understand how feedback is treated in the organization. Are projects, people, and teams constantly seeking feedback? Or is each looking at his screen, praying not to have to interact with others?
That sounds simple. We are all capable of adapting and learning. Yes, but do you know what the greatest source of learning is? The experience. And what kind of experience does teach the most? The mistake.
Organizational cultures that abhor the error stimulate fragility. Small errors from small experiments are fundamental to generating robustness in a system. If we avoid small mistakes, we invite the big mistake that will cause a great and harmful impact.
Another important question here is: how much are we creating plans and forcing people to follow them? If we create a timetable that everyone has to follow, a budget that limits our flexibility in allocating resources, we are creating difficulties in adapting to what is emerging.
Note that most of the suggestions presented here are to remove barriers built. Barriers to diversity, autonomy, interaction and learning. We are the ones that through decades of scientific and Tayloristic administration created those barriers. Or as Nassim Taleb said:
“In fact, in the past, when we were not fully aware of antifragility, self-organization, and spontaneous healing, we were able to respect those properties by building beliefs that served the purpose of managing and surviving uncertainty. We may have denied the idea that things can take care of themselves without any agency. But the gods were the agents, not the Harvard-educated captains of the ship.”