Scrum is Anti-Fragile

By Anton Rossouw.

Some months back I read Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s latest epic tome “Anti-Fragile - Things that gain from disorder” .

I bought the book because I loved his previous two books “Fooled By Randomness” and “The Black Swan”. And his mini poetic diversion “The Bed of Procrustes” is a great diversional romp into the philosophical space.

Image - Amazon

Image - Amazon

I have no doubt that he is a brilliant thinker and should be placed close to the top of the Pioneers list of the worlds most influential people (he is not listed yet).

The other person I see as a peer is Dave Snowden. I would love to see a serious philosophical debate between the two of them but suspect it will start in the sphere of  massive disagreement and end where they eventually agree on everything !

Diversions aside, I found the book and the concept of Anti-Fragile interesting but challenging.

Perhaps my brain is fragile when it comes to new hard-hitting conceptual arguments like this. I could at first not warm my mind to what Anti-Fragile could mean, and the closest I got was perhaps the words “toughness”, "agility", “resilience", “robustness”, "adaptation" and "evolution" which I was well acquainted with.

I discarded most of those words except Resilience because the other words did not carry enough multi layered meaning to approach Anti-Fragility with.

Resilience also made most sense because I read Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy's book "Resilience - Why Things Bounce Back" directly before I read Anti-Fragile.

Image - Amazon

Image - Amazon

I then toyed with trying to understand the antithesis of Anti-Fragile and came with “Anti-Agile” and also for some reason thought of the word “Government”.

As I plowed through the pages it became clear that there was no readily available synonym or close-fit word to describe what Anti-Fragile means. So here follows my summary in the terms of Complex Systems (the living type):

  • It is a particular property of a Complex System as well as a transitionary condition of becoming.
  • It is the ability of a Complex System to increase its fitness and become stronger the more it is challenged, exercised  and too some extent damaged.
  • The Complex System can survive a lot of damage and abuse due to impacts from conflicts emerging from the environment it is in, from within, and encountered by other Complex Systems in the competive space.
  • It is a learning COmplex System that is emotionally charged and energises, and best flourishes when pressure is applied to it.

Reflecting on our Agility, Innovation and Sustainability practice points of view I could not quite  understand how Anti-Fragile concepts can be integrated and what we could learn from it, and left it at that in a puzzled state.

Then one night when watching TV, some nature program documentary again, it struck me !

Waterfall projects are Fragile and Scrum projects are Anti-Fragile.

I think the seeds of the emergent thoughts were sown when I spoke to a colleague about Takeuchi and Nonakas' 1986 HBR paper "The New New Product Development Game" (worth a read for some deep insights into Agility) where they explained the difference between an Agile approach and Fragile approach (not their words) as the difference between a rugby team moving forward and gaining ground over a large field as a unit even while being attacked by the opposition, and a relay race where one runner at a time passes the baton on a set track to the next runner, and if one runner drops the baton or stumbles then the race is lost.

A relay team is thus a more fragile system than a scrum team.

So Scrum from an Agile sense as well a rugby team is Anti-Fragile because:

  • Its a living system compring human agends who move as a team and not as any single individual.
  • It is adaptive, self organising and self re-organising.
  • It learns and reforms through iterative engagement.
  • The more you exercise it the better its performance becomes.

This mindset could also be applied on our organisational systems I suspect. I will find out when I hopefully attend the Nassim Taleb and Yaneer Bar-Yam NECSI executive education session later this year.