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Anti-fragile Operations

A couple months ago I attended a webinar hosted by The BoardRoom Africa and led by Rachel Adams titled; Beyond Resilience: Anti-fragility in Times of Disruption. Rachel referenced Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s definition of “antifragile” from this book; Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, as follows; “Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” Rachel’s talk focused on leveraging the concept of anti-fragility in leadership, through times of crisis.

As an operations leader, I’ve been reflecting on the traditional way of approaching operations strategy, which is typically to design processes that are shockproof and resilient. In my last blog post, the external article I featured also highlighted that too much efficiency can actually be detrimental in times of crisis. So what does anti-fragility mean for your business or functional unit’s operations? How can you strike the right balance between resilience and flexibility?

In this article I focus on three ways in which leaders can imbed more anti-fragility concepts into their operations:

  1. Plan for your worst-shock scenario, which is different from your worst-case scenario

  2. Design and document your escalation chain to empower your problem solvers at all levels of authority

  3. Build processes that are flexible, even those that are meant for exception cases

Plan for your worst shock scenario

So what's your worst shock scenario versus your worst-case scenario? Worst-case scenarios are typically what you attempt to predict and solve for in your business continuity plans. When I think of worst shock scenarios, I think of disruptions to those processes that you are already aware of, which aren’t ideal or that aren’t as efficient as they could be. Business leaders are constantly balancing investments of time, resources, the cost of improvements, and the impact on the quality of products and services. Sometimes we accept the risk of an inefficient process or procedure, due to the low probability of occurrence. To boost your ability to nimbly respond when these processes are strained, a documented plan of action should exist for addressing the known issues/gaps.

Empower your problem solvers at all levels of authority

Escalation chains are great tools for alerting the necessary decision makers when processes fail or when the negative impact on customers is severe. They remove the need to predict all the possible ways things can go wrong, and instead, focus on who has the best expertise to solve the problem quickly . To improve the effectiveness of your organization or business function’s escalation chain, include your best problem solvers at all levels, and in particular, those that are closest to the operations. Empower them to attempt to solve issues or document suggested solutions, as part of your escalation policy. This will be beneficial to the decision makers further down the chain, who have the final say. When the escalation is brought to their attention, if the problem solvers have done their due diligence, the decision making process will be expedited, as opposed to them becoming bottlenecks in the process.

Ensure that your exception processes are scalable

My governance specialists are probably having a knee jerk reaction here. Exception cases don't need to be scalable because they’re meant to ensure that all the necessary reviews take place before the exception is granted. All true, but if there comes a time where you have to give multiple exceptions, there should be an efficient way to do so. For example, if approval is required by a certain level of leadership, those leaders should have the ability to delegate that approval to other managers to help expedite the process. In a pre COVID-19 world, for some companies, working from home required a series of requests and approvals, which had to be quickly expanded to the entire workforce when cities and countries went into lockdown. If those approval processes weren’t scalable, the result would have been loss of productivity due to downtime.

To summarize, I’ll borrow a phrase from Rachel's talk, in which she referenced the work of Frederic Laloux: “anti fragility is about sensing and responding, instead of predicting and adjusting”. As operations leaders, you are aware of the risks within your operations; the less than ideal processes and potential bottlenecks. Having a documented plan of action that identifies these known issues and identifies your best problem solvers to address these issues, will greatly improve your ability to respond in times of crisis. Sometimes that includes making the exception, the norm.

What are your thoughts on anti-fragility versus resilience in operations? Share them in the comments section below.

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