How Can We Make Projects Anti-Fragile?

Nassim Taleb has written a book entitled Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder  in which he basically defines fragile, robust and anti-fragile as;

  • Fragile – things that are harmed by volatility (e.g., glass bowl, economy, etc.)
  • Robust – things that are not harmed or helped by volatility (e.g., a rock)
  • Anti-fragile – things that thrive and improve with volatility (e.g., athletes with exercise gain strength and skill, entrepreneurs gain experience and resilience, etc.)

You can find a good summary of the concepts in his book in this video interview at http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/ .

According to Taleb, the more we interfere with systems to prop them up and eliminate unpredictability and try to smooth things out (i.e., take out the booms and busts of an economy) the more fragile and unstable that system gets. He uses the US economy extensively as an example and illustrates how bailing it out with programs like Quantitive Easing has really only made it that much more volatile and unstable. He states that “man-made complex systems tend to develop cascades and runaway chains of reactions that decrease, even eliminate, predictability and cause outsized events.” Essentially, as the systems that man creates grow larger, they become so complex we cannot control them. In fact, our attempts to control them only make them more volatile and likely to self destruct through a runaway chain of reactions.

As I watched the video I immediately thought about megaprojects because I have been involved with Construction Industry Institute  and their “RT-315 Successful Execution of Mega Projects” team over the last year. One of the sources of information that was reviewed was the work completed by Edward Merrow  in his book Industrial Megaprojects: Concepts, Strategies, and Practices for Success. In his book Merrow states that over 65% of Megaprojects fail in their implementation. He goes on to state that megaprojects are fragile. They are fragile because they have grown so large and complex that even single, small errors or disruptions have the potential to cause massive problems and potentially jeopardize the entire project. This theme is repeated in Bent Flyvbjerg’s  book Megaprojects and Risk: An Anatomy of Ambition.

So if megaprojects are fragile and we want to move them to an anti-fragile state, what can we do? How can we successfully execute megaprojects so they meet their business objectives? I definitely don’t have a simple answer to this complex issue but there are some things that I think should be considered in the execution of megaprojects;

  • One of the things that organizations do to produce repeatable results is to establish rules, tools, systems and processes. Besides repeatable and consistent results, this increases efficiency and profitability. However, it dramatically reduces flexibility….essentially making the organization fragile. When a big change hits or a request comes in that the organizations’ rules, tools, systems and processes can’t handle, the organization fails….it is fragile
  • Conversely, an organization without an adequate level of rules, tools, processes and systems is also fragile as it will not have enough internal alignment to handle anything in a consistent manner.
  • So it seems that an anti-fragile organization or project would have to be balanced somewhere in the middle between no rules, tools, processes and systems and too many
  • If known project risks can be defined, broken down into manageable chunks, managed and mitigated then this should make the project more anti-fragile as it should be able to handle a series of smaller failures rather than one massive cascading failure
  • One of the things Taleb insists on to help reduce fragility is to arrange things such that decision makers are put in a position where they feel the direct consequences of their decisions and actions rather than allowing decisions in a vacuum with no accountability.

This concept of anti-fragility is quite interesting and applies to many areas of our world. If you don’t have time to read Taleb’s book, it’s worth your time to watch the video and spend a few minutes thinking about how you could apply these concepts to areas in your projects and business.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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One thought on “How Can We Make Projects Anti-Fragile?

  1. Dave, In my experience of work on Mega Projects of a very large company, I found that the projects lead by the managers who took ownership and gave the decisions and did not merely follow the rules and processes were highly respected and attracted likeminded people.
    I have seen this happen in the project execution, handling crisis like an oil well blowout control or an accident.
    While working as an executive assistant to the CEO of an oil company, I observed that the CEO would place an executive who is a decision maker ‘ who could interpret the rules and act with courage’ as a leader of ciritical projects.