Antifragility is an idea by Nassim Taleb, describing something that actually becomes stronger with stress. The most obvious things that are Antifragile are living organisms, such as people becoming stronger after experiening stressors at the gym. Other things can be robust, like a rock. Machines are fragile. Cars need maintenance as we use them, they do not usually get better, or more fit for their environment in use.
Some things need stress
Taleb suggests if we do not allow the stressors that make antifragile things stronger, we make it more likely that a big event will threaten the things existence. He uses examples of small forest fires preventing larger ones, and re phrases Nietzsche, changing “That which does not kill us makes us stronger” to “That which kills you, makes me stronger”. For example, failure of restaurants in a city make the restaurant population stronger. If restaurants were not allowed to fail, he suggests standards would fall to cafeteria levels, making the population unviable if compared to choices in another city.
Organisations are not Machines
I think this applies to our organisations in interesting ways. We often run our organisations as machines, seeking efficiencies, lowering risks, and seeing failure as something to be avoided, and covered up if possible. The average lifespan of an US company is 15 years. Does the way we run companies misunderstand that, for long-term survival, they need to be antifragile?
The machine metaphor for organisations is seen in top down hierarchy and control. Often an organisation like this can only understand itself in terms this metaphor. Other metaphors are like a foreign language.
If you think of your organisation in inputs and outputs, single purpose, control, clockwork, standardisation and measurement you’re using machine metaphors.
What would an antifragile organisation look like?
Organic metaphors include environmental conditions, adaptation, life cycles, homeostasis, evolution, distributed control, mindsets, feedback, requisite variety and learning.
Thinking about larger organisations, antifragility means the ability to learn and improve behaviour based on environment stressors. Parts of the organisation should be allowed to take risks and fail to allow learning and improvement to occur. Organisations structure should allow learning from failure in any of the organisational units. Continuous small-scale risk and failure will avoid some big risks.
Note that this does not necessarily mean that the organisation will predict or survive a ‘black swan‘ event, but it will be better suited to a changing environment.
Many organisations managed on a machine metaphor have operational priorities focused on lean efficiency, essentially denying antifragility. Mistakes and failures may be punished and covered up, creating a fragile organisation that is wary of change, and exposed to more, not less risk. By focusing on the machine model and metaphor they are vulnerable to external events that will put them out of existence.