Antifragile - Getting Stronger with Stress

I recently had the opportunity to give a lightning talk at a local agile meetup. If you’ve not been to a lightning talk (which I keep wanting to type as ‘lightening’…probably because it resembles ‘enlightening’) these are presentations you give that last 5 minutes or less.

You can use slides or not, but you will have to fit what you have to say in 300 seconds. It is a great opportunity to try out an idea on a friendly crowd. And I find that the time constraint forces you to examine, distill and re-examine your ideas in a healthy way.

For visuals, I had a single slide with 3 images on it. The rough transcript of the talk is below.

Fragile, Robust, Antifragile

Coffee cups1 are fragile. If you bang them on a table, they’ll eventually break. Fragile things get worse when stressed.

Castles2 are robust. You can beat on the walls all you want, but you won’t change the castle at all. Robust things stay the same when exposed to stress.

Our bones and our muscles3 are antifragile. They require the stress of gravity and the stress of use to get strong and to stay strong. When an astronaut comes back from space their bones are weaker than when they left because of the lack of the stress of gravity. Antifragile things improve when exposed to stress.

The Book

These concepts are from the 2012 book by Nassim Nicholas Taleb titled, Antifragile - Things That Gain from Disorder. 4

I love the subtitle of the book: “Things That Gain from Disorder.” Because that’s what I think our agile principles and practices are trying to do for us. They’re trying to take something that is inherently chaotic, unpredictable and disordered and help us still produce something wonderful in spite of that, or possibly even because of that.

Stress

Fragile - Gets worse
Robust - Stays the same
Antifragile - Improves

These are responses to stress. What do I mean by stress?

Stress is:

  • Incomplete knowledge
  • Unpredictability
  • Incorrect Assumptions
  • Mistakes
  • Errors
  • And Time

Time is the enemy of fragile things and the friend of the antifragile.

I love time as a stressor and as a way to tell if something is fragile or antifragile. When I used to do waterfall development, time was always the enemy. We were always behind. But when you look at our agile practices, they require time to be successful. You can’t build something small and get it in the hands of users to get feedback unless you are making time your friend. You can’t inspect, adapt and improve without time.

So What?

Fragile - Robust - Antifragile

So what do you do with these concepts? Well, the next time your team encounters stress, see if you can classify their reaction into one of these categories: gets worse, stays the same, gets better.

Because once you can identify a fragile response, you can work to eliminate the downside and move the response toward robustness. And once you can identify a robust response you can start to add an upside to make the response antifragile.

Examples

Let me give you a few examples.

Let’s say it is the second day of your sprint and your lead UI developer goes out sick with the flu and will be out for a week. What does your team do? Do they say, “Well, we’re going to have to defer all the UI work.” This is a fragile response.

Or, do they say, “Well, the UI work is still the highest priority work we’ve got so we’ll just do the best we can.” And in so doing, they give another person on the team an opportunity to work on the UI. They won’t do it exactly like the lead developer and they won’t do it as fast. But you’ll get a fresh perspective on the UI and you will have grown the strength and capacity of the team to do UI work in the future. That’s an antifragile response.

Or what if you’re in a retrospective and some negative feedback is presented. Is it something people take personally? Does it cause a fragile response like divisiveness in the team?

Or does everyone nod their head and say, “Yes, we’ve got a problem and we should do something about it.” And then everyone walks out of the room and nobody does anything about the problem. That’s a robust response to an issue when you don’t want one.

Or is the negative feedback an opportunity for the team to improve and get stronger…an antfragile response.

Conclusion

I’ve found this a very powerful way to look at the world around me, but I will caution you that once you start to look at the world this way it is hard to stop. Much in the same way that you’ll never look at a door the same after you read The Design of Everyday Things.5

I hope you’ve found this interesting and if this helps you in working with your teams, please drop me an email, I’d love to chat with you about it.

Thank you for 300 seconds of your time and may your future be antifragile.

  1. Icons from the Noun Project. I did buy licenses so I could use them without citation in my presentation, but here I’d like to give credit.<p>Coffee Cup by Rohith M S 

  2. Castle by Adriano Emerick 

  3. Strength by Brennan Novak 

  4. I really like this book, but it is very dense and complicated…intentionally so. In fact most of this talk comes from the introduction and first few chapters. If you like this concept I’d recommend checking the book out from the library to see if you want to read the whole thing.<p>Antifragile - Things That Gain from Disorder<p> You can also get more perspective on these concepts from podcasts or videos. I found this podcast to be a great introduction to the concepts of antifragility from the perspective of city design and urban planning: Strong Towns 

  5. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in design or usability.<p>The Design of Everyday Things