Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage News Going Beyond Agility with Antifragility

Going Beyond Agility with Antifragility

Antifragility emphasizes embracing chaos or randomness through adapting and evolving. It can help enterprises to be more able to deal with and even gain from uncertainty and disorder, making them more flexible and adaptive to events that happen.

Si Alhir wrote a blog which sums up experiences and conclusions from his workshop on Demystifying Antifragility: Beyond Agility. The workshop was based on the book "Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder" from Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

He explains why there’s a need for antifragility next to agility in today’s world:

Business organizations live in a VUCA world (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity) (which arouses fear) and (implicitly, if not explicitly) use OODA (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) loops/cycles — ultimately, we must confront fear with empathy, catalyze the human element, and become future ready!

The essence of agility is re-orientation within the OODA loop/cycle. The essence of antifragility is evolution. This is the business context for Taleb’s "non-predictive decision making under uncertainty" and antifragility.

The Scaled Agile Framework and how it relates to antifragility was one of the topics that was discussed in the workshop:

We also spent significant time in the workshop exploring how the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) — given its popularity — can fragilize versus antifragilize an enterprise (or how SAFe makes an enterprise more fragile versus more antifragile) — especially when adopted and sustained in an unhealthy manner.

Even with so-called SAFe success stories, SAFe fails to address "digital transformation issues beyond the enterprise’s software development challenges" and adopting and sustaining agility (in mixed environments or enterprises with a variation of approaches) let alone achieving antifragility!

InfoQ did an interview with Alhir about the antifragility concept and how it relates to agile and how you can deploy SAFe to make it more antifragile.

InfoQ: Can you briefly describe the antifragility concept for the InfoQ readers?

Alhir: In the book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduces the concept of antifragility. Taleb distinguishes between the fragile, robust, and antifragile, the Triad: "the fragile wants tranquility, the antifragile grows from disorder, and the robust doesn’t care too much." Fragility and antifragility mean potential gain or harm from disorder. The fragile are penalized and the antifragile benefit from exposure to disorder.

Disorder (including chaos, volatility, uncertainty, randomness and errors) stresses individuals, teams, and organizations, any entity! Fragility and antifragility are degrees on a spectrum, and are a property of an entity relative to a given situation, limited to a specific source of volatility and range of exposure. An entity that has more downside in a given situation is more fragile and an entity that has more upside in a given situation is more antifragile.

Consider Taleb’s first line in the "Antifragile" book: "Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire." A candle is more fragile to wind while fire is more antifragile to wind. A candle will be extinguished by a degree of wind while a fire will spread by a degree of wind.

Fundamentally, Taleb’s discussion of Mother Nature and its "mechanisms of growth and evolution" is quintessential to understanding antifragility! The concept is very rich and nuanced, and appreciating those nuances is essential to put the concept into practice.

InfoQ: In your opinion what are the differences and similarities between agile and antifragility?

Alhir: While agility involves responding to change (per the Agile Manifesto), antifragility involves gaining from disorder (per Taleb); and while agility emphasizes embracing change through inspecting and adapting, antifragility emphasizes embracing chaos or randomness through adapting and evolving!

Generally, as a value system or mindset, agility emphasizes people, results, collaboration, and responsiveness (per the Agile Manifesto) where self-organizing cross-functional teams form agile organizations, and where various frameworks with practices/techniques operationalize agility.

And generally, antifragility emphasizes evolution and gaining from disorder where individuals and collectives form antifragile enterprises, and where various dynamics operationalize antifragility.

Agility and antifragility are similar in that they both focus on adaptation, and different in that antifragility goes beyond agility and focuses on evolution. For example: while coaching client executives, I encourage individuals to adapt their leadership styles to what’s needed for success, which increasingly fosters more agile leadership; and I encourage individuals to not only adapt but evolve their leadership styles, which increasingly fosters more antifragile leadership.

The crucial distinction between agility and antifragility focuses on differentiating between adaptation, which focuses more on adjusting to conditions, and evolution, which focuses more on developing from conditions. This distinction is not pedantic, but foundational!

InfoQ: Can you give some examples from the workshop on how antifragility can be operationalized?

Alhir: While Taleb explores tinkering and trial & error, the barbell strategy, and optionality among other heuristics, operationalizing antifragility involves focusing on context, dynamics, and evolution.

This involves focusing on [1] stakeholders, individuals and collectives, who form an enterprise within an ecosystem; [2] the dynamics among stakeholders and the enterprise within the ecosystem; and [3] the evolution of the stakeholders and the enterprise within the ecosystem. Dynamics include communication, relationships, and behaviors.

Again, evolution is crucial to antifragility!

InfoQ: In the workshop you explored how to deploy SAFe to make it more antifragile. Can you elaborate on this?

Alhir: As many organizations confront the challenges of achieving greater agility at scale, various approaches have extended Scrum, Extreme Programming, Lean Development and Kanban, including DAD, LeSS, SAFe, etc.

While Scaled Agile, the organization behind the SAFe, readily acknowledges that "SAFe does not implement itself and indeed makes no attempt to describe the significant organizational change management, cultural impacts, implementation strategies, and training and services provisioning that are typically required for successful implementation" and only offers brief "recommendations for implementation," far too many practitioners are seemingly using the "recommendations" as the way to deploy or "implement" the SAFe, which can be very "destructive"! Many are now thirsting for a more "healthy" or "constructive" and less "toxic" or "destructive" approach for deploying SAFe.

SAFe is organized around three levels of scale: Team, Program, and Portfolio. The Team level focuses on stable teams (Agile Teams). The Program level focuses on long-lived teams-of-teams (Agile Release Trains or ARTs). And the Portfolio level focuses on long-lived initiatives (Epics).

I’ve often said that teams are one of the most fragile things in the agile world, and the notion of "stable" and "long-lived" teams makes an organization more fragile! Alternatively, consider dynamic or fluid teams and dynamic or flowing teams-of-teams, which would foster less fragility and more antifragility. Again, it is crucial to not merely embrace extremes but consider the right mix of stable, unstable, long-lived, and short-lived individuals, teams, and teams-of-teams as well as initiatives.

Transforming into a more antifragile enterprise and putting these concepts into practice requires intentionality and critical thinking, especially since many of the techniques may seem heretical to the agile community!

Rate this Article