What can engineering managers do to make their teams antifragile?

Written by Divine Odazie

September 18, 2021

Antifragile” is a term first coined by Nassim Taleb, author of “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder,” a well-known book on uncertainty. Antifragile describes something that grows stronger with every black swan (unpredictable negative) event. Antifragility is about thriving in chaos and uncertainty. 

For engineers to be antifragile, they need to handle errors and thrive under pressure. This article will discuss why teams need to be antifragile and what engineering managers can do to make their team antifragile.

We will cover:

Antifragility

An engineering team can’t always win while maintaining an optimistic attitude in the face of black swan events. Antifragility doesn’t mean that when black swan events happen, the team immediately benefits. It means that they will survive and come out of these events with more knowledge and experience.

A real-world example of antifragility can be seen in the 2019 security breach of Avast — A Czech cybersecurity company where hackers managed to compromise an employee’s VPN credentials. After the engineers resolved the issue, they started tracking other security alerts inside Avast’s ATA (Microsoft Advanced Threat Analytics) dashboard. 

The engineers at Avast learned from their black swan event, which made them ensure a more secure system at Avast.

It’s important to remember that antifragility and resilience aren’t always pleasant to experience—just as the engineers at Avast must have had stressful days during that crisis. The point is that the engineers learned from the experience and used that knowledge to their benefit.

Why do teams need to be antifragile?

Teams are more likely to experience success if they are antifragile – resilient and leverage change. This means that they would withstand and quickly recover from upsets, shocks, and other difficult events.

There are many reasons why teams need to be antifragile:

  • To simplify complex work and allow engineers to take on more responsibility and ownership for tasks
  • To improve creativity by reducing the need for engineers to rely on each other for inspiration
  • To increase productivity because teams can better focus on what they do best

Antifragile for agile teams

One of the main principles of agile is to change plans in the face of new information. Being antifragile is the ability to be resilient and leverage change. Engineering teams can use the idea of antifragility in agile to create an environment of resilience, learning, and innovation.

What can engineering managers do to make their teams antifragile?

To make their teams’ antifragile, engineering managers should:

Instill a mindset of resilience within the team

A resilient team should be able to recover quickly from failures and also learn from them. An engineering manager can help build this trait within the team by fostering a culture of constant learning.

Engineers who are not resilient enough will give up too quickly in their pursuit of engineering knowledge. They will either feel embarrassed by their failures or want to avoid them altogether, which will stop them from innovating. On the other hand, more resilient engineers will see these setbacks as an opportunity to learn something new about themselves or the profession they are pursuing.

This mindset will allow the engineers to focus on problem-solving and keep calm during trying times.

Build a culture of autonomy and transparency

A culture of autonomy and transparency is essential for engineering managers to build a team that is antifragile. This kind of management style is necessary as engineers need to have the ability to make decisions about what tasks they prioritize, in what order, and in what manner.

This management style also builds trust between the engineering manager and the team. They know that they can come up with ideas that the engineering manager will not shut down if it aligns with company values and goals.

In autonomous and transparent teams, engineers:

  • Are allowed to take risks when needed.
  • Have autonomy over their roles, tasks, and projects.
  • Are empowered through visibility into what’s happening in their organization at all levels.

Ensure every engineer has skin in the game

Each engineer needs skin in the game to help the business succeed. The engineering manager needs to understand how to get each engineer on board with the company’s vision and goals.

The engineering manager should understand why each team member is motivated by incentives. In addition, the engineering manager should be aware of what sets each engineer apart from their peers and what contributions they can make to the company’s success.

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