Antifragile

Failures happen. In engineering we often face a choice between trying to eliminate failures or making our systems handle them more gracefully. Both approaches are important but in my experience fault tolerance is the more valuable. The reason is simple: we can only eliminate failures we can imagine while fault tolerance adds some resilience to failures we could not imagine.

I have found the same to be true for groups of people.

Many managers do their best to protect their teams. They manage information carefully and they defend their teams aggressively against change. They expend their own energy to carefully maintain a consistent environment. Their focus is on precisely what needs to be done and how. These managers are often beloved by their teams as long as the protection holds. However when an unexpected failure occurs, as will invariably happen, these teams and their managers often struggle. Maybe the company strategy changed or the market isn't reacting as expected, but the pressure is now on the manager alone to restore order by developing a new plan for the whole team. These teams are fragile.

The best managers I know don't do any of that. They are transparent with information in real time, especially potentially disruptive information. They embrace change when appropriate even if it is painful. They expend their energy to ensure their team is as equipped as possible for whatever might come. Their focus is on clarity around the goals and the operational constraints of the team. And when an unexpected failure occurs, the burden of how to react is shared by the entire team. They all know the goals and the constraints, they all have all the information, and they may not even need their manager at all to coordinate and plot a new course. Instead of protecting people, these managers empower people. These teams are antifragile.

Things that are antifragile gain from chaos. These are systems that are able to capture upside without participating as fully in the downside. Just like bones strengthening when subjected to stress, antifragile systems flourish through failure.

When teams survive change together they are stronger for it. They understand their goals better. They have learned more about the world they operate in. They are better equipped to handle future changes. If you get really good at change management your team can harness the opportunity that comes with failure instead of being attached to the loss.

Stability is important for effective execution so providing stable environments is an admirable goal for leadership. But that only holds as long as the stability is genuine and not manufactured. In periods of heightened risk and uncertainty I find it much more effective to be earnest about the situation with the team and help them be robust to the changes.

Instead of protecting your teams from failure, prepare them for it.