Anti-fragility is a brilliant concept, put forward by Taleb in his wonderful books: Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan and Anti-fragility. These concepts can be applied to make projects stronger, and thrive on challenge.
As project professionals, our job is to deliver change. We steer our projects through complex and ever-changing environments, handling adversity to deliver on time, cost and scope. Threats arrive from all directions, both internal and external, and the longer the project runs, the more volatility it will be exposed to. Lack of knowledge, uncertainty and errors accumulate to generate more stress to the project and increase the risk of failure.
How, then, can we maximise our chances of success?
A compelling approach comes from the concept of ‘anti-fragility’, described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book Antifragile; Things that Gain from Disorder. The concept is simple, and to illustrate it, I will borrow Taleb’s example. Picture a large parcel delivered to your home, secured by yellow and black tape, with a label affixed. The label says: “Anti-fragile. Please mishandle.” The parcel invites the couriers to throw it around, on the basis that the parcel will become stronger the more it is mis-handled. A seemingly bizarre concept, but one with great relevance to projects. How can we design and operate projects that get stronger the more threats and challenges they are exposed to?
First, let us take a look at what makes a project fragile. We will use an analogy. Picture a wine glass, perched precariously on the edge of a table above a hard stone floor, while a party rages around it. Here, then, is an accident waiting to happen. If the glass is knocked and hits the floor, it will smash, its non-linear response to shock causing catastrophic failure. Our conventional response is to move the glass away from the edge of the table in the hope that, should it be tipped over, we can catch it before it rolls off the table and shatters on the floor. Although rarely countenanced and somewhat extreme, we could even try to calm or stop the party, to minimise risk and preserve the glass. But how much control do we have over our project environment?
The fragility in this example derives from an object (the wine glass) possessing a brittle nature, being exposed to a shock that is transmitted through the material rapidly. It has a non-linear response to shock, and loses out, shattering its very fabric. Is your project like this? (And how do you even know, without testing it?)
To improve our chances we could make the glass more robust by choosing a different material, say polycarbonate. It is less likely to shatter upon impact (and less aesthetically pleasing). Its more linear (and hence predictable) response to shock makes it robust. Similarly, a robust project can weather some storms, but is it enough? Could we make a glass that thrived on being dropped onto a stone floor, and done repeatedly, became near indestructible? This container would be anti-fragile.
To make an anti-fragile glass – with our current material technology – seems absurd. Making objects that get stronger through stress and uncertainty is difficult, but common in nature with her living structures. Trees grow stronger with applied forces by growing reaction wood; bones get stronger through exercise. Through anti-fragility, they respond (providing ultimate limits are not exceeded) and adapt to their environment.
The key here is living adaptation. We must design and operate projects that proactively adapt and thrive on challenge. They relish – even invite – challenge, confident they will grow stronger.
How can we design adaptation into our projects? We need three elements. First, a defined structure that can handle loads and shocks. Second, a nervous system of kinds that can sense the loads and shocks imposed on the structure. Third, an adaptive reinforcement system that can respond to shocks and strengthen the structure in the right ways: a feedback loop.
Let’s start with the structure. Our projects must have a clearly defined rationale, methodology, requirements, change control, schedule, dependencies, resources, ways of working, standards and desired outputs. If any of these are missing, we are likely to have a fragile project. To cope with shocks, these will need to adapt very rapidly, and usually faster than can be achieved, leading to their partial or total failure.
Structure and ability to sense go hand in hand. For our senses to give us a good picture, we must have a clear idea of progress, plans and where the project is headed. If we don’t know, then it is difficult for us to detect and respond to adversity. Accepting the consequences of poor requirements without adopting a project methodology that can handle them is inviting trouble. Our senses are dulled, and our project becomes fragile.
Suppose, however, that we do successfully identify stresses through a sensing system that provides our project with senses akin to sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. If our senses are impaired, we must work harder to manage and respond to our environment.
Fragile projects hate volatility, stress, chaos, randomness. They observe shocks after the event (‘look what’s happened!’) and, if they haven’t failed already, must rally to respond. A robust project senses a shock as it lands, braces, and has some means to absorb the blow. An anti-fragile project is likely to see a shock coming before it lands, and if it can, will step neatly out of the way. If it cannot, then the project will get stronger from the shock, learning how to avoid or handle it better next time.
Anticipating events is key to building an anti-fragile project: strong risk and opportunity management are vital. These give us the tools to simulate a range of scenarios, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and ask the questions: ‘What might happen, and how would I respond?’. Through risk management we should focus on the impacts, mitigating the fragilities, rather than trying to guess the probabilities of occurrence.
For the third element: adaptive reinforcement – how can this be achieved? Through precision: of goals, objectives, expectations and ways of working. Projects that choose to work inconsistently, to variable or undefined standards, and perhaps with a laissez-faire approach to the output, can expect to suddenly find themselves fragile, exposed to a shock that threatens the project. By contrast, projects that exercise care over the information they work from, how they conduct the work, and the quality of their deliverables, can expect to be robust, and – with the right culture – anti-fragile, provided that they can also learn from experience. This last step is often missing. An organisation might operate a debrief activity, but it is unusual for the change to be driven back into the business through the established ways of working. Instead the list of suggestions and supporting data gathers electronic dust, ensuring a repeat failure.
Seeking the upside in an adverse situation is another example of anti-fragility – what opportunities can I take from this event; how can I use the shock to strengthen, rather than weaken?
On this topic a final point: the enemy of precision is ambiguity. We must challenge ambiguity: do not let it lie. If a project cannot succeed, consider failing instead – for such a failure is a success in terms of intellectual honesty around what can and can’t be achieved. Stakeholders have a choice about the project, and the choice of failure is to be discussed along with success.
Finally, to support the adaptive system we must have the right culture. People need to care about responding and improving. Being relaxed or tolerant of adverse events may seem appropriate but reduces our ability to build anti-fragile projects. We must feel free to challenge, and so leadership and culture are vital.
Nature has another clue for us: diversity. An individual entity may be fragile, but collectively, anti-fragile. For projects within an organisation, we can take the ensemble – or portfolio – view. We may not be able to preserve an individual project: its goals may be untenable, and its sponsors impossible to satisfy. We should be ready to close the project, to fail early and fail fast. Our ecosystem of projects, provided we have built it to learn, will take care of the lessons and ensure our next project is more successful. Business culture influences the project and portfolio culture. If the business is willing to be firm with itself, and to learn from its mistakes, then we have the makings of an anti-fragile organisation.
As Taleb says: “the robust is neither harmed nor helped by volatility and disorder, while the antifragile benefits from them”.
Wrap your project in a sign: ‘mishandle’, and it will get stronger. Now go make your project and organisation anti-fragile, and, crucially, share your stories so as a profession we can learn from one another, and build anti-fragility into our professional DNA and society.