To survive a shock to the system become an unplanned organization

water ripplesby robin_24

What Happens When We Shock A System? 
[Via Chaotic Ripple]

Have you ever noticed that some things in the world like to be disrupted?  Rogue militant groups set out to garner counter-attacks that distract their opponents while draining their resources.  Viruses encourage multi-cellular organisms to activate their immune systems in attempts to wipe them out.  Teenagers seek the disdain — and occasional wrath— of authority figures in their lives.

These seemingly counter intuitive behaviors are the centerpiece of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book, Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.  They are the “teachable moments” that enable us to truly understand the driving dynamics of systems that undergo shock.  Indeed, there are entire categories of systems that benefit from disruption.

As a first example, consider the wave of new startups that arise in the aftermath of economic collapse.  The entrepreneurs who have long awaited the opportunity to step out from under the constraints of a prior paradigm are free to explore and create anew.  We are seeing this all around us in the exploding field of social entrepreneurship today.  Those companies whose legacy has been to rape and pillage, laying waste to vast ecosystems of the natural and social worlds, held the attention of financiers for decades.  And now that many core institutions of the old world order — particularly the financial ones – have deteriorated to the point of ruin, those among us who strive to create business and have a moral conscience at the same time are able to step in and fill the void.


As a biologist by training, so much of what Joe Brewer describes here is indicative to me of the messiness of biological systems — the ability to deal with fragility in a robust way, to bend without breaking, to deal with shocks in ways necessary to survive, etc. It reminds me of Margret Wheatley’s work on the Unplanned Organization.

I wrote a series about The Synthetic Company a few years ago that incorporate Margaret’s ideas. One aspect that I think is critical for any anti-fragile system is what she calls a leader-full organization.

I also want to emphasize that emergent organizations are leader-full, not leaderless. Leaders emerge and recede as needed. Leadership is a series of behaviors rather than a role for heroes.

Part of what allows these groups to deal with unforeseen shocks in a resilient way is that the appropriate leader can rise up to take control and then become a follower later on when the shock recedes and another type of leadership is needed.

We see this again and again throughout history, as well as in our most entrepreneurial companies: the person who is best suited for dealing with one sort of shock (war, raising capital) is seldom the best for dealing with another shock (peace, shareholders, etc.) Since we cannot know what shocks are in store, nor what is really fragile in an organization, a robust solution to a world of shocks is to create a group of diverse and somewhat redundant talents with leadership dispersed in a way to allow the right talent to rise up when a particular shock hits the system.

Full of leaders who can follow when needed. Full of followers who can lead when required.

And, not too surprisingly, this organizational hierarchy collapses into something that resembles not only the biochemical networks seen in living cells but also the computer networks seen on the Internet. It seems that almost all systems that need to deal with fragility, robustness and the shocks of a rapidly changing world begin to look alike in some ways.


I believe that this is a hallmark of the sorts of organizations that will thrive in the 21st century, that can deal with the shocks of rapid change in ways to advance and grow. 

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