Is your Culture Anti-fragile?

by Brian Brittain on March 23, 2020


Having an Anti-fragile culture is more useful than having a Strategic Plan. I never thought I would say this, as my job is to help organizations implement their strategy. I have been resistant to the notion that strategic plans are useless in these times of rapid change. Let me be clear.

Every organization needs a general direction and a loose plan to work from. But this plan will change, and that is a good and natural thing. What is more important and a better indicator of sustainable success is an organization’s ability to sense, talk about, and respond to stress or change. It is less the strategic plan that is critical, but rather people’s ability to influence and change it on the fly.

Antifragile is a term coined by Nassim Nicholas Taleb (author of The Black Swan) in his book Antifragile, that followed The Black Swan. Humans and human systems are antifragile. This means that they REQUIRE change and stress in order to grow and develop. We need to be constantly tested by inside and outside forces, in order to remain healthy. We shrivel up and die over time if no deviation occurs to our path. There are other complex systems which are anti-fragile. Our immune system, democracies, financial markets. They all do better when they are pummelled with challenges, and are able to react quickly to these challenges.

I have a client who is in the middle of two massive change Tsunamis. They have been recent victims of a massive cyber-attack, worldwide, and also victims of the one we are all victims of, the coronavirus. I have been privileged to watch their antifragility. Not having email has meant more face to face interaction (at least until COVID 19 hit.J), more personal visits to the sites where they do business, rather than emailing their clients and workers.

What that client needs to do, as we all do after big challenges, is to discuss key learnings and behaviour changes that we should maintain even after the stress has left us, that will make us even better prepared for the next one.

We have watched how countries respond differently to the coronavirus, and the difference in the results they are getting. Our organizations need to adopt the response of a South Korea and Switzerland, and not like China or the US. Honest, quick, and more of a bottom’s up empowerment approach.

Characteristics of an antifragile culture would be:

  • A willingness and capability to sense stressors on the system, coming from the outside and the inside. Knowing when the relationship between our plan and current reality need to be re-aligned.
  • Transparency in regards to bad news. Is your organization a safe place to report problems or stuff that is not working?
  • A bottom-up orientation to problem solving and decision making. To what extent have senior leadership created the conditions for all levels to have an accountability to sense change, report it, and problem-solve and decide what to do at the appropriate level
  • A clear understanding that growth and longer term success is a function of immediate and continuous response to stressors on and in the system. Not on having the perfect plan.

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