Antifragility and bullying

What would make something ‘anti-fragile’? And how could we support that in our enterprise-architectures?

Over the past few months I’d noticed various references to Nassim Taleb‘s recent work on ‘antifragility‘, but had largely dismissed as just a made-up term for resilience. I was wrong, of course – though in my defence, I know I wasn’t the only one who’d made that mistake. In fact, it’s becoming clear to me now that it’s going to be extremely important for enterprise-architecture in all of its forms, not least because it’s one of the few approaches that explicitly acknowledges and works with chaos, rather than pretending that it doesn’t or shouldn’t exist.

I haven’t yet had a chance to read the book – though I note that on Amazon, bizarrely, the Kindle ebook is more expensive than the hardback, which makes no sense at all. But with the book’s launch, there’s suddenly a lot more information around – and more accessible information, too. Sinan Si Alhir kindly sent out via Twitter a whole stream of links to articles and interviews:

The core thesis, as I understand it, is that we need some degree of chaos and disruption in order to adapt and thrive in the midst of change. Immunisation is one example; disaster-recovery is another. The key to it all is to work with the uncertain – and still remember that it always is uncertain:

When you ask people what is the opposite of fragile, they mostly answer something that is resilient or unbreakable—an unbreakable package would be robust. However, the opposite of fragile is something that actually gains from disorder. In the book, I classify things into fragile, robust, or antifragile.

This applies to individuals: there’s a fair amount of truth in the old phrase that “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”. And as my mother put in one of her much-republished ‘family doctor’ magazine-articles for new parents, everyone needs a decent dose of “the other Vitamins-D: a little dirt, disorder, discomfort and danger, without which a child will not thrive”.

It applies perhaps even more to whole species, or whole industries – the restaurant-industry and the aircraft-industry being two examples that Taleb cites in his work. Not always so good for the individuals, perhaps, but if there’s a learning-process that applies after an individual’s demise, the whole collective can become stronger – an active form of resilience, where resilience itself tends to be more passive.

Read those articles and interviews listed above – for enterprise-architects especially, they’re well worth the time and effort. Then perhaps cross-link it to some of my posts on chaos-related themes here, such as ‘Control, complexity and chaos‘ or ‘On chaos in enterprise-architecture‘: many of those posts could well make more practical sense if viewed through an ‘antifragility’ lens.

It’s important, though, not to read Taleb’s work too uncritically: for example, to my eyes he seems at times to revert to a cheerleader for a lot that’s very badly wrong in present-day business. In particular, what I haven’t yet seen is much understanding of the very real danger that the need for antifragility could be exploited as yet another excuse for not facing up to a problem that’s already running rampant throughout our organisations and elsewhere: bullying.

From the outside, it might seem that a bit of ‘roughing-up’ and suchlike might actually be ‘a good thing’, even a kindness, to help enhance someone antifragility. There are plenty of schools and suchlike that still operate on that belief; sadly, we see too much of its so-called ‘adult’ form on LinkedIn and elsewhere. The blunt reality is that in most cases that’s just plain bullshit: and as Bob Sutton makes clear in The No Asshole Rule, there’s a very big difference between something that’s intended to help, versus something that is intended to cause damage to others – “propping self up by putting other down”, otherwise known as violence.

It’s not as if there’s a fine line between useful support for antifragility versus outright bullying: the fact is that there’s a very clear and explicit distinction between them. It’s called purpose – in other words, the ‘why‘ behind the ‘how’ and ‘with-what’ of techniques to work with chaos and deliberate disruption. It’s the difference between functional-anarchy and dysfunctional ‘kiddies’-anarchy’; it’s the difference – as in fact Taleb does note – between post-traumatic growth and the serious damage of post-traumatic stress-disorder.

Antifragility is a very useful concept in business and the like: but unless there’s a more useful purpose behind it than propping up someone’s already-over-swollen ego, it risks causing far, far more harm than good. You Have Been Warned, etc?

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Posted in Complexity / Structure, Enterprise architecture
3 comments on “Antifragility and bullying
  1. I think you’re right Tom that we need chaos and for me the number one reason is this:
    Chaos is a form of momentum

    Without momentum an organisation will stagnate and die – the key is to know how to tap into and manage that momentum in useful ways which is what enterprise architecture approaches will greatly assist with

    • Tom G says:

      “Without momentum an organisation will stagnate and die” – really good point, Marcus – thanks.

      I need to do a post soon about chaos and entropy. It seems to me that most views of entropy have it the wrong way round: they argue that it goes from order to chaos, whereas to me it goes from chaos (maximum possibility) to order (minimum-possibility: stasis). Life is inherently counter-entropy in that catches hold of a little bit of chaos in order to pull it back into new possibilities. Something like that, anyway. :-)

  2. Sally Bean says:

    Nassim Taleb is speaking at the RSA on Thursday 6th Dec at 6:00pm GMT. It’s a sellout, of course, but can be watched online.
    http://www.thersa.org/events/our-events/antifragile

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