My spouse has a personal trainer who makes him perform all kinds of healthy practices. One week it’s the lateral lift, another week it’s the biceps curl. Yesterday the focus was on the bench press, but tomorrow it could be the knuckle buckle. What’s important here is that it’s never the same thing. In order to become healthy a human body should not get too comfortable performing the same routine. The real value is in continuous adaptation to unanticipated stress.
Nassim Taleb called it antifragile, and described it like this:
Now the crux of complex systems, those with interacting parts, is that they convey information to these component parts through stressors, or thanks to these stressors: your body gets information about the environment not through your logical apparatus, your intelligence and ability to reason, compute, and calculate, but through stress. […] Thanks to variability, small variations make them [complex systems] adapt and change continuously by learning from the environment and being, sort of, continuously under pressure to be fit.
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Antifragile
Different words, same idea.
A complex system benefits from not following the same practices over and over again. By adding a little bit of stress, and continuous variability in the environment, the system learns to become fit and healthy.
Here’s another example.
I’ve always said that every child deserves a good dose of bacteria and viruses. This significantly boosts the child’s immune system. Instead, we raise generations of offspring with more sicknesses and allergies, because we’re protecting our children from healthy infections. Again, it’s the same thing. Short-term stress leads to long-term resilience. If you protect their bodies from a little bit of harm, you raise your kids to be quite a bit fragile. Do them a favor, and feed them some dirt. Because you love them.
It’s no different for organizations.
You should grow your teams to be antifragile.
No Frameworks, No Methods
I am in favor of unexpected changes, which is why I am against rigid and defined frameworks. Like Taiichi Ohno, the father of Lean thinking, I am against codification of methods. When you prescribe safe practices you introduce stagnation. It’s a short-term benefit, leading to a long-term danger. A short term protection from harm, culminating in long-term fragility.
Of course, people cannot learn values and principles without practices. We all have to start at the Shu level. But when you present a collection of good practices as a method or framework, you forget about the nature of complex systems. We learn from uncertainty, variability, and surprise. What strengthens your health is not that weekly relaxed lounge in the sauna. It’s the unexpected and dreadful plunge in an ice-cold bath afterwards.
Every regular practice works, until it doesn’t. Are the daily standups losing value? Try daily water cooler talks. Are people getting too comfortable sitting together? Move them around. Are the retrospectives not working? Buy them some drinks at Starbucks. Is a team too dependent on its task board? Hide it in the kitchen. Force people to do Scrum not by the book, and change things unexpectedly without notice. As I wrote before, ScrumButs are the best part of Scrum.
A complex system that gets too comfortable with certain behaviors runs the risk of becoming complacent, stagnant, and fragile.
Let people get used to surprise.
For management practices it is no different. I recently asked participants in a webinar if they thought organizations need a management method or framework. Roughly 67% said “yes”.
I understand people’s need for more concrete management practices, but I am against the definition of a management method. The inevitable result would be a certification program that validates whether people understand and apply the method correctly. And learning would come to a standstill. This would be at odds with complexity science, and incompatible with systems thinking.
I prefer the workout metaphor.
Everyone understands 20 push-ups a day are healthy, but not required. It’s perfectly fine to replace this practice with something else. In fact, as your personal trainer knows, you should! Likewise, you could implement a work expo, until you are tired of it. You can play moving motivators, until people know too well how it works. You should try kudo cards, until they lose their value. And you can’t go wrong organizing exploration days, until you don’t need them anymore.
Do you want your organization to be fit and healthy?
Next week introduce a change that your well-performing team did not expect. Add a new stressor. Feed them some dirt, mixed with a bit of love.