By Keith McCandless and friends
Part 1 of this article explores how to search out, shape together, and gain from strategies that embrace disorder and distributed control. It builds on a companion piece written in 2019 that introduced Strategy Knotworking entitled Liberating Strategy: Surprise and Serendipity Put To Work. Strategy Knotworking includes all voices in shaping the future while inviting everyone to creatively adapt in the moment. Parts 2 and 3 shine light on practical knotworking strategies applied in business, non-governmental organizations, and how biology does strategy (contributed by luminaries in complexity-inspired strategy Johannes Schartau, Nancy White, Larry McEvoy (MD), and Michael Arena).
When mentioning antifragile strategies to consulting clients, I get a puzzled look. One honest person may say, “I don’t really get what you mean by ‘strategies that help you gain from disorder and distributed control?”
My reflexive response is an animated supercalifragilisicexpialidous recitation of complexity science insights. I sense this is not productive and a little self-indulgent. Maybe, it would help if I could sing supercalifragilisicexpialidous like Julie Andrews. Ha ha, ha… I doubt it. So, I am writing this article to shed more light on the concept, understand it better myself, and share practical applications with Liberating Structures.
Additionally, the climate crisis, social injustice, the Covid pandemic, and now the war in Ukraine have revealed severe limits and blindspots of conventional planning. The surprises, disruptions, and uncertainties just keep coming. And, I fear the desire to return to normal or to select resilient strategies to bounce back from disruption may do more harm than good. With a more complex-adaptive and regenerative approach in mind, 2022 is a good year to launch a fresh exploration of how to shape the future.
Defining Antifragile Strategy
How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress. Niels Bohr, physicist
Antifragile thinking was popularized in the investment domain. A book published in 2014 called Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Taleb elaborates on navigating uncertainty in stock markets and investing. “Antifragile” was dubbed to describe the opposite of fragile. It describes something that not only survives but thrives when exposed to volatility, disorder, and uncertainty. This concept fits nicely with complexity science origins of and inspiration for Liberating Structures.
The idea of gaining from disorder is a bit paradoxical. Rather than a resilient rubber band returning to its original shape after being stretched, think of a muscle that comes back stronger by building on the stress and strain. Antifragile is a phenomenon that is not simply resilient but rather grows and adapts creatively in response to disruption.
Ecologists use fitness landscapes to portray how disruptions spur active probing and adaptation among species trying to survive into the next generation. The model is also applied in computer science, business, and economics. Elevated peaks represent more likelihood of survival and optimal solutions to challenges in the environment. In the continuous search for fitness, successful adaptations shape and reshape the peaks and valleys as the future unfolds.
The fitness landscape is a way to visualize co-evolution and the search for effective strategies. If you operate in a relatively stable environment, you gain fitness by finding, maintaining, and exploiting an elevated peak over a long period of time. [Figure 1] In a volatile or complex environment, you gain fitness by exploring multiple peaks while creatively adapting in shorter cycles. [Figure 2]
Of course, one size fits all or either/or thinking approaches to strategy can constrain your search for effectiveness. The context of your market or environment may call out for both approaches simultaneously. For managing investment risk, Nassim Taleb calls this a barbell strategy : a combination of safe optimization of one peak and speculative exploration of multiple peaks while avoiding moderate risks entirely.
Or better yet, why not more of both? [See Figure 3] For a group shaping a portfolio of strategies, Wicked Questions draw out the more of both approach:
- How is it that we are optimizing our effectiveness on one stable peak even as we are exploring multiple peaks in a rapidly evolving landscape?
- How is it that our strategies are integrated across our whole organization while uniquely adapted to each local setting?
- How is it that we are managing risk cautiously in our core operations while seeking out risks and lucky hunches across a wider ecosystem?
Into the Thicket: Introducing Distributed Control and Antifragile Concepts
Fear is a habit. I’m not afraid. Aung San Suu Kyi
On the ground when I am helping clients with strategy, antifragile concepts often generate sharp pushback. Antifragile and distributed control approaches may seem awfully messy, inconsequential, or even worse, a rabbit hole with no return ticket.
Below are elements of exploring in a complex environment followed by examples of common sense arguments for optimizing in a stable landscape.
Accepting the possibility of non-linear and exponential growth by exploring multiple peaks generates both fear and excitement. While optimizing fitness around a single peak is very familiar, exploring across multiple peaks often feels unfamiliar and risky.
My role as a consultant is to face the fears by: guiding an exploration of multiple options for operating successfully in a wide range of plausible yet unpredictable futures; and, helping clients prepare for putting surprise and serendipity to work, turning their ideas and ambitions into reality whatever future unfolds. This feels like a worthy challenge. So, into the thick of it we go.
Exponential Dynamics: The Challenge of Being In Charge But Not In Control
Managers would rather live with a problem they can’t solve than with a solution that they can’t fully understand or control. Eric Bonabeau
The pandemic disrupted face to face gatherings. While there was an abundance of virtual options like Cisco, Microsoft, Skype, and Google, Zoom “made video conferencing frictionless.” This simple rule and singular purpose–to make video conferencing frictionless–guided Zoom strategy. In December of 2019, Zoom had 10 million users per day. One year later, Zoom reported 200 million users per day. In part, this growth arose from a strategy that helped them gain from disruption and disorder.
Both the Covid pandemic and Zoom are examples of surprising exponential spread. For good or bad, they take our breath away because they spread so rapidly in what appears to be a disordered or unpredictable pattern.
In turn, antifragile thinking may be challenging because it suggests strategies that generate exponential growth will inevitably surprise us. We will lose control. Grrr. It may be impossible to assign cause and effect or to trace the leverage points. A small action or change could make a very big difference. Similarly, a large-scale change could have little influence.
The dynamics of exponential growth are different: the power is distributed, spread across a population or networks of tiny interacting agents (e,g., people, viruses) rather than in a top-down or center-out hierarchy. In volatile environments, the agents gain by organizing themselves without much centralized control.
For the pandemic and Zoom, this dynamic generates a growth rate that goes up along with the existing number of cases/users. For Covid-19, the spread of infection has a doubling time proportional to the current number of infectious people. The doubling time during the pandemic has been as little as 3 days. In regard to Zoom, one analyst estimated Zoom added 100 million users in roughly three weeks time. Clearly, leaders were in charge but not in control of growth.
Also confounding is the possibility that a small change can make a big difference. Linear thinking would have us expect big changes are required to spur large increases in growth. However, Zoom made relatively small changes to simplify video conferencing. Similarly, small variations in the makeup of viruses–in a single far flung local area–can have an outsized influence on transmissibility all over the planet. Loose connections among the widely distributed agents is enough to spur rapid growth.
In contrast, we can more easily see and expect that for every action (force) in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction (Newton’s third law of action and reaction). We love predictability and equilibrium when making plans. For example, conventional strategic planning is based on assumptions that embrace balance: the future is going to play out across a relatively predictable path toward a fixed point; and, a stay the course, optimizing game plan will return an organization to equilibrium. While these assumptions are at odds with the reality of unpredictable dynamics of fast moving markets, our responses may not match the complexity of challenges in play.
If you are a leader, manager, teacher, or consultant, a big challenge may be accepting that you are in charge but not in control. While you have formal authority, your power to shape the future and what happens next is embedded in the distributed network of tiny interactions. And, our experience influencing tiny interactions embedded in distributed networks is woefully limited (e.g, attempts to limit dis- or mis-information spread via social media).
More of Both: Safe Optimizing and Speculative Exploring
The logic associated with optimizing and exploring strategies is detailed below in Figure 6. One strategy helps you gain from optimizing on a stable peak and the other helps you gain from exploring multiple peaks. While you can view them as opposed, embracing both can be very productive when developing strategy.
Optimizing~Exploring tendencies may be a complementary paradoxical pair that contributes to metastability in organizations. While they appear to be contraries, in practice they are mutually related and inextricably linked. Parts 2 and 3 explore the complementary more of both dynamic in more detail.
Closing and Link To Parts 2 and 3
So, into the thicket and thick of it we go: often finding ourselves in charge but not in control. Parts 2 and 3, What You Can Do, explores how leaders are bringing more of both strategies to life. Given the surprises, disruptions, and uncertainties unfolding over the last few years, the focus is on developing more capability to gain from disorder and distributed control. Hold onto your socks and hats!
PART 2 introduces practical steps that are effective for liberating strategy in a wide range of organizations and settings. In PART 3 luminaries in complexity inspired strategy Johannes Schartau, Nancy White, Larry McEvoy (MD), and Michael Arena) share field stories illustrating how liberating strategy takes shape in different domains.
McCandless, Keith and Schartau, Johannes (2018), Liberating Strategy: Surprise and Serendipity Put To Work (Medium)
Lipmanowicz, Henri and McCandless, Keith(2013). The Surprising Power of Liberating Structures: Simple Rules to Unleash A Culture of Innovation. Seattle, WA: Liberating Structures Press.
McEvoy, Larry, MD. (2021). Epidemic Leadership: How to Lead Infectiously in the Era of Big Problems (John Wiley and Sons, publisher)
Arena, Michael and Uhl-Bien, Mary (2016). Complexity Leadership Theory: Shifting from Human Capital to Social Capital, People + Strategy
White, Nancy. (2018) Adaptive Strategy Development and Facilitating Strategic Planning in Complex Contexts , Full Circle blog
- Video [10 minutes] describing the Strategy Knotworking approach by an international NGO serving activists and communities working to end violent conflict and tyranny everywhere in the world https://vimeo.com/693378067/0187842d67
- Credits: LS icon by Lesley Jacobs; photos by Keith McCandless
- Editorial magic provided by Nancy White and Leslie Stephen