May 20, 2013

Development and anti-fragility

Written by Jennifer Garvey BergerJennifer Garvey Berger

I had a chance and delightful afternoon with adult developmentalist Bill Torbert last week. He was staying with a mutual friend, and as I had an unexpected afternoon off and he was willing to put down his writing for a few hours, we walked by the sea and had ice cream together.

On airplanes and in hotel rooms I’m still picking my way through Taleb’s Antifragile which is clearly exactly the book he wanted it to be without the benefit/ determent of careful editing to be sure the book doesn’t get too repetitive or rant filled. Anyway, one of the benefits of reading a book slowly and over time and of going over the same ground again and again (and again) is that the ideas soak in in different ways. And one way they soak in is by helping you hear stories with new ears, in a way.

As Bill and I talked about our stories, I realized that one of the things later stages of adult development offer is a kind of antifragile capacity. In fact, if “antifragile” means that something benefits from shocks and uncertainty, human sensemaking might, in the right cases, actually be antifragile. Bill and I were talking about shocks and uncertainty in our lives, and the unanticipated benefits that come alongside the more easily identifiable miseries. An unexpected change—getting fired, divorced, losing a friendship—disrupts the story you tell yourself about yourself, and it leaves you unsettled and troubled. If sensemaking were fragile (in the Taleb sense), that sort of unexpected and unhappy change would lead to decline. But these changes can be exactly the ones that lead to the breaking of old versions of ourselves and the writing of new possibilities, new capabilities.

There’s plenty of research to show that we learn more from our failures than from our successes. This wisdom that comes from setback might mean that the piece of us that is fragile to shocks is our current version of ourselves. The piece of us that is antifragile (to a certain extent—these distinctions are always within boundaries) is the person we are becoming, the self that we’ll be next.

This isn’t just a theoretical argument, though. I think this can follow many of Taleb’s other principles as we apply them to adult development and leadership development ideas. Live in a world where you are protected from failure—this makes you more fragile. Live in a world where other perspectives are just like yours—also more fragile. Live in a world where too much of your own identity is in the hands of others (as it is at the socialized or diplomat sense logics) and you are more fragile. In the constant quest to help organizations develop their people as a piece of the work they do, we might consider these things and watch the way organizations too often create conditions where people become more fragile, over-reliant on systems or processes, over-reliant on particular thinking patterns, over-reliant on the voices or perspectives of the few.

There’s a way this challenges current organizational thinking about change. Perhaps organizations, rather than changing things too often in these last several years, have been changing too seldom in the 100 years before now. What if organizations, by being places where our lives could be lived in orderly and predictable ways, have been making us more fragile for these last decades? How could organizations shift towards shaking things up often enough to keep us strong, but not so often that they break the useful boundaries and make us weaker? These questions and many more arise from wondering how to help use change and disruption to make us all stronger, better, more capable long into the future.

(The picture today is of the sky over Seattle, in part because it’s a place I go on these long away periods, and in part because of the many volcanoes there. Volcanoes make our world more beautiful and more dangerous–a kind of antifragile motif…)

2 thoughts on “Development and anti-fragility”

  1. bob ashley says:

    Thanks for making the leadership/antifragile connection. I’m working my way through Taleb’s tome myself. You’re right. Best to read it slow and let Taleb’s mosaic sink in from all over, everywhere, over and over.

    I’d offer that Taleb might be more conservative than your wondering if “organizations [can] shift towards shaking things up often enough…” He suggests that first we batten down the hatches, shore ourselves against the downsides of “Black Swan” threats. Then, and only then, ought we to start thinking more boldly about risk-taking.

    Good article. Hope you continue to explore antifragile in the context of leadership.

    1. Jennifer Garvey Berger says:

      Hello Bob, Thanks for thinking with me on this one. Really interesting point you’re making, and I wonder how it extends into the development space. What’s the equivalent of “battening down the hatches” in a kind of developmental way? And, now that we’re thinking along those lines, what exactly is a black swan threat for our own sensemaking? I guess it would be something that challenged us so much we were damaged by it (terrible physical or emotional abuse?). I’ll be mulling…

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