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What is antifragility?

Antifragility is a term coined by Nassim Taleb in his 2012 book, “Antifragile.” It denotes what benefits from problems, usage, variation, and feedback.

How does antifragility apply to companies?

Teams and organizations can react in three ways to problems. Fragile teams thrive when things go well, but when there is a problem, things go downhill fast – blame, band-aid solutions that create more problems, burnouts, and so on. Robust teams don’t suffer particularly from problems. Instead, antifragile teams benefit from problems. For example, they discover a root problem, such as a missing competence or a misunderstanding, and address it in a way that makes the team stronger in the future.

The same can be said of individual employees. Fragile workers avoid feedback and hide problems because they are vulnerable to them. Robust workers are okay with receiving feedback and discussing problems but do not proactively do so, nor do they benefit much from it. Conversely, antifragile workers proactively look for feedback and surface problems, because they know they can improve themselves and their organization by addressing them.

How does Antifragility differ from robustness? 

Resilience and robustness mostly mean resistance to problems, in the sense of no downside but also no upside. Instead, antifragility captures the upside of problems.

It’s particularly relevant because business conditions are everchanging; a team that’s robust to today’s problems might be fragile to tomorrow’s. Instead, an antifragile team keeps evolving and improving, adapting to any problem it might face.

How can you become more antifragile as an individual? 

When we face a problem, we should shift our focus from “curing its symptoms” to “curing its cause.”

When measuring metrics, we should measure not only the symptoms of success but also its causes; the same for problems.

And we can front-load experience by learning from near misses and others rather than having to go through pain ourselves first.

What are examples of antifragile companies?

Toyota is a classic example of an antifragile organization. They institutionalized the principle of learning from problems, going all the way to proactively surfacing them (e.g., JIT).

Another example was DuPont, my former employer, which made it imperative to learn from problems. For instance, senior managers made it clear that any safety incident or near miss was to be followed by a root cause analysis and action that would prevent it from occurring ever again. They also insisted that learnings were shared across teams so that problems would strengthen the organization – the essence of antifragility.

How does antifragility relate to remote work?

It’s more important than ever. When you have a remote team, problems stay hidden for longer unless proactively surfaced. However, you cannot just ask people to surface problems – they won’t trust you really mean it or that, if they do, you won’t punish them for having surfaced a problem. What you need for people to surface problems is trust, and trust is a track record: you need them to witness over and over that when a problem is surfaced, good things happen to everyone involved.

How can companies measure their level of antifragility? 

Antifragility isn’t something you can measure with a number, but it’s something you can evaluate with some heuristics.

Here are some red flags that show that a team is fragile:

  • When someone raises a hand, following events teach them they shouldn’t raise a hand the next time.
  • When someone takes a risk, if it goes well, they won’t get much of the upside, but if it goes badly, they’ll get all of the downside.
  • Problems are hidden under the carpet, and if it isn’t possible, they are solved in the most superficial way possible.
  • The company is over-leveraged, or the team is overworked; in other words, any problem will likely create a cascade of larger problems.

Here instead are some green flags that a team is antifragile:

  • Problems are surfaced proactively.
  • When a problem is surfaced, it is tackled at a root-cause level.
  • When someone raises a hand, following events teach them it was a good idea to raise their hand, making them more likely to raise it next time.
  • Problems that can be ignored aren’t ignored.
  • Managers spend time with their team, observing them work (the only way they can really spot problems; sports coaches metaphor).
  • Opportunities are pursued.

Luca Dellanna is a management advisor and regularly runs a workshop called “Antifragile Organizations.” If you are interested in attending it or in Luca organizing it for your team, contact him.

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