the general solution

“Antifragile” systems thrive on stressors. They don’t achieve this merely being able to change directions quickly and easily. Rather, they efficiently generate options enabling them to essentially be in many places at once. Nature does this without trying, but humans must continually improve their thinking and routines to emulate these natural processes.


Antifragile things thrive on stress and volatility. Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined this term to mean negative-fragility. The best example we have of an antifragile system is DNA-based life on Earth. As a micro-example, dandelions are damn near impossible to eradicate; disruption and unpredictable events just make them spread all over the place.

“Dandelions” in business are extremely rare—Amazon is one example of very few. Unlike a vast majority of businesses, Amazon welcomes unpredictable events and volatility because they are likely well positioned to exploit those events relative to their competitors. It’s not just Amazon’s huge size, and they don’t place the right bets because they have a crystal ball. It’s just that they’re structured so that their size enables and encourages them to place so many small but independent bets.

You likely can’t be like Amazon. But you can engineer your systems and business to achieve antifragility nature’s way.

Nature’s Way

When a system’s design emerges in response to natural stressors options emerge to cope with those stressors. It’s not an intelligent process so much as the stressors kill off the parts of the system that are not fit for purpose. Natural variation of options (e.g. genetic recombination) in the neighborhood of the failed options results in new options, some of which are more tolerate the stressors. Sometimes the best option is simply a duplicate of the original providing some redundancy. In the end, the whole achieves antifragility at the expense of the fragility of its parts, specifically any of the unfit options that were filtered by the stressors. 

The mechanism looks like “adaptation”. But what’s really occurring is that the system is creating many options and expecting a vast majority to fail. Every living organism is one of life’s “options” in their specific environment. Every cell is an option within an organism. An organism “improves” or adapts when unfit cells die, just like a species improves when unfit individuals are proven unfit, just like life as a whole “improves” when unfit species are filtered. In these examples, the whole achieves antifragility at the expense of the parts.

All of the Amazon’s offerings like Prime and Echo that strengthen Amazon’s market position came at the expense of many others that were filtered. Smaller companies like yours can’t afford many product-level failures, but you can create finer grained options that strengthen the products and services you do offer. But you must to change your thinking to make it happen.

Option-Based Thinking

Options simply provide more possibilities for success. An enterprise organically transforms from fragile to agile to antifragile by learning to efficiently create, cull, and exercise options at all scales. This mindset is “Option-Based Thinking” or “OBT.”

This goes well beyond the cliche’ of “keeping your options open” much like “Lean” goes well beyond simply reducing waste. With Lean, Toyota turned a cliche into a way of life. Similarly Option-Based Thinking is an explicit strategy and discipline that actively cultivates options at multiple scales—anywhere that stressors have proven to create exposure and anywhere opportunities might hide.

Option-Based Thinking is not about the brute force of paying for lots of options. The asymmetric payoff really emerges when you find innovative ways to lower the cost and dispersion of your options. Building an OBT culture requires commitment and discipline, but it starts with a shared set of beliefs, values, and principles.

Beliefs, Values, and Principles

OBT begins with beliefs, values, and principles informed by experience and justified through common sense. Principles guide our daily actions by helping us make decisions about what to do in a give situation. But principles don’t work unless they align with the things we value. We simply won’t act, principles or not, if we are pushed in a direction inconsistent with the things we value. But values themselves are not the source. At the foundation are beliefs about the world.

Most of our beliefs are outside the scope of improving our businesses. But there’s one core belief that gives rise to everything in the Antifragile Enterprise: The world is becoming increasingly volatile and unpredictable. And probably the single most fragilizing trait is the hubris to believe that you can predict what’s going to happen, or the faith that others can.

The values and skilled applications of OBT principles are not only to be the keys to agility, they will also take you beyond agile.

Beyond “Agile”

Like a cat, agile systems are able to move with quick easy grace but are generally only at one place at a time. Pivoting is made possible through agile technical practices and directed by feedback with actual customers.

Antifragile system seek and generate options for many paths concurrently. Toyota’s Set-based Concurrent Engineering is perhaps the most concrete and familiar example of an option-generating process in industry. They don’t simply iterate until they find the best automobile design. Instead, they explore many designs concurrently and filter them incrementally by applying stressors in the form of more constrained requirements until they have a few viable candidates to choose from. It’s all about options. 

When we examine the myriad practices that have proven effective over time through a lens of “optionality”, we quickly see that within thier particular contexts, they are just a means to an end.

Means to an End

Whether they emerged form agile methodologies or not, practices and techniques that help us to navigate complex systems work to the extent that they enhance optionality. When practices to aid complex work don’t enhance optionality, they are either being misused or they are a waste of time.

For example, the user story format AS A <ROLE>, IN ORDER TO <GOAL>, I WANT TO <INTERACTION> works because GOAL creates a stable context within which the Scrum Team can consider different INTERACTION options.

As you move forward, it is clear that enabling, seeking, and generating options is the primary value that any given practice, technique, or process provides. So examine them as a means to that end: “In what way does this improve optionality within my work?”

How do we make it happen?

Jeff Bezos once suggested that good intentions don’t work because everybody has them and under stress we revert to old habits. So we need a mechanism to turn those intentions into auditable routines.

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