“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Organizations are not very different from living organisms – they are born, learn, evolve and die (sooner or later). If one were to take the analogy one level deeper, employees would be cells and you could (in some ways) compare teams to the organs – where people come together to do a particular function.
Companies that do well over a long period of time will need to survive shocks that the markets throw at them ever so often. Fragile companies will fall apart on shocks whereas the robust ones will survive. The winners however will be the ‘Antifragile’ ones that learn from the shocks, adapt and come out stronger.
In his brilliant book, Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder, Taleb introduces the concept of Antifragile as something that improves with (non-fatal) shocks. The human body is a good example of something that is antifragile. Taleb distinguishes antifragile from robust in the sense that something robust does not change because of the shock that would destroy something fragile, whereas something antifragile would actually get better. e.g. workout in the gym helps builds muscles. Humans are inherently anti-fragile (with controlled environments adding fragilty, but that’s another discussion all together)
Core to making antifragility happen are employees and how motivated they are to adapt. While the media might convey the impression of a superstar CEO or leader who guided the ship, needless to say how every single employee approaches the situation will matter.
In mathematics, supperadditive sequences are those that that add up to more than their sum. (the negative is referred to as subadditive).
a(n+m) >= a(n)+a(m)
When people come together in teams their motivation levels will to a large extent dictate how they collaborate and work towards the larger goals.
If team members are aligned and motivated then the team becomes superadditive. Collaboration happens and (often) leads to innovation. In the long run these teams are antifragile. They don’t fall apart when trouble hits, they find solutions and come out stronger. But if there is misalignment, then those teams become subadditive and end up doing more damage than good or simple fall apart and achieve far below their capabilities.
Guess which type of teams, winning organizations have?
Which brings us to the question, how can we ensure teams are superadditive (and antifragile?)
Unfortunately we can’t ensure it, but there a couple of things companies can do to influence the possibility of their teams becoming superstars.
Create a culture of mutual respect: One of the important things successful teams have is mutual respect for each and every team member. Everyone matters and contributes. To reinforce this, progressive superadditive teams ensure that the culture of mutual respect is created and reinforced through timely recognition of contributions by each team member.
Appreciation of adherence to core values: Taleb mentions in his book that “You may never know what type of person someone is unless they are given opportunities to violate moral or ethical codes.” When recognition reinforces the core values the organization lives by, the choices made by team members under pressure are guided in the right direction.
Appreciating success is easy, but good teams understand and celebrate failures when done with the right motivation and goals. This might be good for the organization in the long term but might lead to short term setbacks. Recognition from peers for the action can dramatically alter the motivation levels of the team member.
Promote collaboration over self-promotion: Machiavellianism is named after the philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli who argued that political leaders should maintain an virtuous outward façade but do whatever is necessary to meet their goals behind the scenes. In companies with cut-throat competitive work culture this approach is often taken by employees to move up the corporate ladder. Needless to say, tolerating (or supporting) such an approach is detrimental and will only serve to weaken the team in the long run. Superadditive teams promote collaboration over self-promotion and building on the culture of mutual respect, roles and designations don’t dictate interactions – alignment towards a common goal does.
Recognition over Rewards: Research has again and again shown that recognition trumps rewards when it comes to influencing motivation in employees. A survey by Make their Day covering 1200 employees from a broad cross-section of industries found that 83% of respondents said that recognition for contributions was more fulfilling than rewards or gifts and 76% found peer praise extremely motivating.
Building a strong culture of recognition has a massively positive impact on motivation of team members. Recognition at the right time for doing the right thing helps reinforce the culture of respect and adherence to core values when the going gets rough.
Avoiding decay from super-linear to sublinear:
Physicist Geoffrey West has found similarities in the scaling phenomenon in physics and that of companies. When considering similarities between organisms and companies (both of which are complex adaptive systems), West found that both scale non-linearly – they follow the power law. (Easiest example is economies of scale which help companies grow profitably) But when teams become dysfunctional, innovation and creativity get stifled. Bureaucracy and administration takes over, often moving the company from super-linear to sublinear growth.
The way for companies to avoid decay and death is to keep building superadditive teams that innovate and transform the organization to keep it alive, healthy and thriving. Building a culture of recognition is the ultimate tool that leaders have to make this happen.
Why cities keep growing, corporations and people always die, and life gets faster, A Conversation With Geoffery West, The Edge
Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb