Q&A on Exploring the Practice of Antifragility

| Posted by Ben Linders Follow 14 Followers on Jan 04, 2016. Estimated reading time: 12 minutes |

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In the book Exploring the Practice of Antifragility Si Alhir and Donald E. Gould collected experiences with and perspectives on applying antifragility.

InfoQ interviewed them about the concept of antifragility, why they decided to work with contributors when writing this book and the questions that they have asked these contributors, their view on applying antifragility in software development, how antifragility can help organizations to become more flexible and able to deal with change, and results that organizations have gained from applying antifragility.

InfoQ: For those who are not familiar with the concept of antifragility, can you briefly explain it?

Gould: All living systems are subject to stress, random events and disorder. Those that break are fragile, those that resist adaptation are robust. Those that adapt, gain new capability, understanding, and strength are antifragile.

Alhir: Nassim Nicholas Taleb (@nntaleb) introduced the concept of antifragility in Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (2012) where he distinguished between the fragile, robust, and antifragile: “the fragile wants tranquility, the antifragile grows from disorder, and the robust doesn’t care too much.” Antifragility is a neologism expressing “reverse fragility” similar to how the opposite of negative is positive, the opposite of positive fragility is negative fragility or “antifragility”!

Fragility and antifragility mean potential gain (benefit) or harm (penalization) from disorder (including chaos, volatility, uncertainty, randomness, stressors, etc.); that is, it is a property of an entity relative to a given situation, limited to a specific source and range of exposure. It allows us to confront reality, or as Taleb expresses, “to deal with the unknown, to do things without understanding them --- and do them well.”

InfoQ: What is the main purpose of this book?

Gould: The primary purpose is to capture varied experiences with antifragility in the hopes that the compilation will assist the readers as they explore applying antifragile concepts in their own sphere of influence.

Alhir: The story behind this book is shared in my blog post on exploring the practice of antifragility and in Donald's post on a miracle in the ebook world. Given that antifragility is “behind everything that has changed with time” (Taleb), the book invites a kaleidoscope of perspectives to explore antifragility in practice.

InfoQ: What made you decide to work with contributors from all around the world when writing this book?

Gould: Antifragility is a fundamental concept. As such it should apply to every living system anywhere and anytime. In order to discover how antifragility might be made practical a wide variety of experiences are necessary. We are interested in contribution from across the planet to gain from the vast diversity. If there were inhabited planets nearby we’d ask them too.

Alhir: In 2014, I delivered a workshop on Demystify Antifragility after which you graciously interviewed me on going beyond agility with antifragility, where I invited “Various Voices on Antifragility” to contribute a slide for use in the workshop. As the participants appreciated the diversity of voices and perspectives, to further explore the concept, we hosted a number of panel/webinars (see Antifragility: Practice Beyond the Rhetoric!) earlier this year and ultimately created the book and began to invite contributors to further explore antifragility.

InfoQ: The book explores three questions: How have you interpreted Taleb’s concept of Antifragility, how have you translated your interpretation into practice and what are the results and impacts of your efforts. Why are you asking these three questions to the contributors?

Gould: Each question requires some thoughtful analysis and basic knowledge of Taleb’s work. The questions require a deliberate approach. Further we are asking for no more than one half to three quarters of a page to aid the contributor in being succinct. Also the questions follow a OODA pattern: Interpret (OO), Acting (D), and Results (A).

Alhir: The questions are intentional in revealing how people are “interpreting” the concept, “translating” it into practice or “experiencing” it in practice, and understanding the “results and impacts” of putting the concept into practice. As practitioners, our objective is to benefit our clients (who operate in a very disruptive business world) and the questions help reveal how we (as a community) may pragmatically leverage antifragility to that end.

InfoQ: For many years organizations tried to use methods and frameworks to work in a structured and orderly way when doing software development. The Agile Manifesto takes a different approach by valuing people over processes and embracing change. How would you describe antifragility when it comes to software development?

Gould: An antifragile approach attempts to remove barriers to randomness and ambiguity and in fact fosters conditions for creativity. For example, a group could use brainstorming, random thinking, or seemingly unrelated skillsets, to rapidly, with no rules and minimal structure come up with ideas to solve a problem.

Alhir: Taleb’s concept of antifragility is quintessentially about evolution! Thus, we can explore how to make requirements, code, tests, architecture, systems, applications, software development approaches, teams, organizations, etc. more evolutionary!

However, many have “confused” antifragility with agility. Agility is about embracing change by inspecting and adapting to reality (or adjusting to conditions) while antifragility is about embracing disorder by adapting and evolving from reality (or developing from conditions). Adaptation is about “’fitness to,” which commonly occurs in the moment, while evolution is about “’unfolding from,” which commonly occurs over time, where evolution generally follows from adaptation. Agility and antifragility are similar in that they both focus on adaptation, but differ in that antifragility goes beyond agility and focuses on evolution. This distinction is not pedantic, but foundational!

There are many organizations who have taken the approach of "valuing people over processes and embracing change," yet their "agile teams" are quite fragile! For example, many agile teams "complain" about other non-agile teams in their environment because the non-agile teams cause too much stress on the agile teams. However, if these agile teams were antifragile, they would not “complain” but “welcome” the stress (again, from a specific source and for a range of exposure) that is caused by the non-agile teams on the agile teams so that the agile teams may evolve from the stress. Furthermore, this should not be taken to an extreme!

InfoQ: There are different ways how antifragility can be used in practice. Can you give some examples from the contributors in the book which show how they are applying it?

Gould: From Si Alhir, “Reality is perpetually disruptive.” One technique is to do away with pre-conceived meeting agendas and move to dynamically created agendas. Prior to a meeting those leading discuss general topics. At the beginning of the meeting a short discussion is held seeking input for agenda topics. Those items the leader wishes to include are listed and all agree on the topics. This both provides a guiding framework as well immediate adaptation. All of this done in real time on a whiteboard. This provides opportunity to adapt to a quickly changing environment.

Semira Soraya-Kandan’s “My approach to interacting with clients is to prepare a little as possible, to be open to what emerges and to learn what matters within their frames of reference and relevance.”

Alhir: A few examples: Mark Ferraro and Todd Nilson both explore communities; Gunther Sonnenfeld explores "an interpretive approach of surfacing unseen knowledge through deep listening and learning;" and Stuart Farrand explores how to Keep Decision Making Local, Embrace Open Communication, Encourage Risk Taking and Celebrate Failure, and Hedge against the Future. For example, Todd emphasizes how communities grow or “gather strength” from being ad hoc, fluid in accessing and sharing knowledge, and unified based on their commonalities; they grow as they leverage their capabilities to confront and overcome stress in their environment.

InfoQ: There are organizations which are looking for ways to improve continuously. They want to become more flexible to be able to deal with changes, both happening within and outside the organization. Can they apply antifragility to do this? Do you have examples from the book that show how this can be done?

Gould: This simple answer is yes, definitely. First find a coach. It’s difficult to imagine an organization changing from within. Organizations are made of people, thus, it is the people who must become more antifragile leading to a more antifragile organization.

Here are two ways:

  1. Create opportunities where disparate people have to interact (stressor). These can be meetings, analysis, organization, orientations, it really does not matter too much . . . The goal is to get individuals to adapt to more meaningful interaction.
  2. Coach open communications. This could be shutting down an overbearing leader, creating a safe place for the shy ones, eliminating repercussion, etc. For example, I recently was conducting a discovery meeting where my business product manager was talking too much. I reminded the team as a whole why we were there and anchored the conversation back to the goal. In another instance near the end of the meeting I scanned the participants and asked each one if they had offered up a suggestion. Anyone who hadn’t I provide a sticky note and pen and had them contribute.

Alhir: Generalizing from Donald’s response, improving continuously can occur through adaptation or evolution. Agility is all about adjusting to change while antifragility is all about developing from change.

For example, consider a team working with a product manager who is almost always completely inaccessible. To adapt to the product manager’s situation, the team adjusted their schedule and then their communication style given the product manager’s inaccessibility, however, that did not result in enough time with the product manager. To evolve from the product manager’s situation, the team then developed the role of a “product manager proxy” that explored and ultimately determined how best to work with the product manager. Notice that adaptation is more about accommodating constraints but evolution is more about creatively overcoming constraints.

Another example, consider a collection of teams who were established as stable/long-lived teams, but were so interdependent that they couldn’t perform without slowing each other down. Their interdependence included teams needing people (skills) from other teams to complete their work, teams generating technical clashes (architecture) as they did their work, and teams having wide variation in demand based on the business cycle and time of the year, that is, while some teams struggled with the amount of work they had to complete, other teams were not busy at all. The teams attempted to adapt to the situation by focusing on opportunistic cross-training and focusing on architectural practices, however, the teams did not make any significant improvements in performance given the complexities of their situation. After various experiments in how best to address these challenges, the teams evolved the practice of completely reshuffling team members every iteration/sprint, which resulted in their (all teams) ability to be as fluid as needed to optimize their performance and confront unanticipated shifts in their business cycle, that is, people could move among teams as needed to contribute their skills, address technical issues, and address variation in demand. Notice that evolution involves creatively overcoming “foundational rules” (in this case, having stable/long-lived teams) for the right reasons, and experimenting to determine how best to overcome constraints.

The book explores these types of examples in applying antifragility at all levels (individual, team and group, and organization) and across various domains of application.

InfoQ: Can you share some of the results that companies have gained from applying antifragility?

Gould: From my own experience, in one situation a series of stressors and seemingly random events were engaged each with a common theme. The goal was to instill in a group of potential coaches a commitment that would carry them through the program. We used 3x5 cards to answer questions such as, “Why do you want to be a coach?” or “Name on person you think should leave the group.” Initially there was significant resistance, lack of trust, and apathy. Over the course of 6 months we moved from several days for one of the exercises to several hours. The client gained an ability to analyze data, group the data, and make decisions relative to the data’s use.

Alhir: Again, generalizing from Donald’s response, the book explores antifragility at all levels (individual, team and group, and organization) and across various domains of application. The examples I mentioned in the previous question allowed their respective organizations to allow product managers to continuously grow from market needs (while being less accessible to product teams) as well as teams to continuously grow from variations in market demands. There is tremendous “art” and not mere “science” in putting antifragility into practice! Fundamentally, individuals, groups and teams, and organizations evolve their ability to embrace and grow from various disruptions or disorder.

InfoQ: This book is a work in progress. What are your plans for the future?

Gould: We want to accumulate a multidimensional set of contributions; ideally a statistically valid sample from which fundamentals might emerge. Sometime in the not too distant future this work could evolve into practical and repeatable concepts. One concept I’m pondering is around the qualifications (education and experience) that would be useful/needed to effectively use antifragile concepts. Or, what analysis criteria would one use to determine an appropriate action to induce a positive change. How strong would that stress need to be?

Alhir: We plan to continue to explore the practice of antifragility, engage the community of practitioners, and foster the ecosystem (of practitioners) around this emerging business paradigm. While I appreciate Donald’s emphasis on “fundamentals” that “might emerge” and “practical and repeatable concepts” that “could evolve,” the essentials are reasonably evident, but are not yet being intentionally put into practice --- partially due to people hastily relating antifragility to what they know (perhaps, agility) versus approaching it as an emerging paradigm!

Conclusively, we invite anyone interested in contributing their perspective to this book to contact us at!

About the Book Authors

Si Alhir (Sinan Si Alhir) is an Enterprise Transformation Coach, Trainer, Consultant, and Practitioner who focuses on Business Agility and Antifragility while working with Individuals, Collectives/Communities/Teams, and Enterprises/Organizations. He is a catalyst with over three decades of proven experience in appreciating and leveraging all aspects of human dynamics/nature to catalyze individuals, teams, and the whole enterprise to sustainably achieve impactful results towards meaningful intentions — bridging the chasm between strategy, leadership, & culture -and- business agility and antifragility -through- humanization/transformation/change-management. His clients have ranged from start-ups to the Fortune 500. Learn more about Si or visit his LinkedIn profile and blog.

Donald E. Gould is a modern renaissance person. From a decision at an early age to learn, his insatiable curiosity has led him to acquire knowledge and capability across numerous areas. Serving in the Submarine Service early in his work career laid a foundation of learning which eventual led to a various formal degrees including a BS in Physics, and several graduate degrees related to IT. Don’s primary area of work has been in IT beginning in testing then moving to project management. He holds a PMP certification. Over the years Don has developed a passion for writing and building guitars. Learn more about Don or visit his LinkedIn profile and blog.


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