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Thriving through chaos: what does it take to build antifragile?

It is not possible to predict the future with much accuracy. So says Nassim Taleb, whose deep and considered work concerns problems of randomness, probability and uncertainty. Exposure to unknowns is amplifying and our world, calibrated by rapid rates of change and technological advancement, seems increasingly complex. While some individuals appear to relish change and complexity, discovering within it treasure troves of opportunity, others primarily experience stress and anguish. Our task as leaders and citizens of the world is to set the conditions for more relish and less anguish. So should we focus our efforts on building personal and organisational resilience? Probably not.

We need to go beyond resilience in order to thrive through chaos. While the resilient can take shocks, they stay the same. Staying the same or copying more of what we already know or do is risky strategy in times of turbulence and change. To go from zero to one, we need to keep learning and growing. We need to go beyond building resilience. Taleb describes the ideal state as ‘antifragile’. This is when you encounter change, or possibly even chaos, and you learn from it so that you emerge differently, stronger. The job after all is not to catch up to the current status quo, but rather to create it (Seth Godin’s famous mantra).

Building antifragile

Virginia Satir is an important figure in the history of systemic therapy. Her model of change details how we transition from a late status quo, through resistance and chaos, to a new status quo. It was developed to assist individuals to move through dramatic personal change, and is successfully applied in organisations. There are 5 phases to the Satir Change Model:

  1. Late status quo: a period of relative familiarity, comfort and balance with established routines. The balance is likely not ideal, but the system maintains it. We may not speak up about poorly performing team members, or resist changing ways of doing things that are no longer working for us. Enter the Foreign Element, something that the system can no longer deny, internally or externally. It could be a randomly generated event. The balance is now destroyed. Examples could be a technological change or other factor that invalidates position in market, or attrition rates of employees / customers tipping over a tolerable edge.
  2. Resistance: the natural repertoire of response to a foreign invader is ignoring, rejecting, denying, blaming or trying to swallow the element within established practice. Another tactic might be to try and ‘wait out’ a change initiative.
  3. Chaos: confusion typically ensues around what to do and how, and the discomfort with uncertainty is usually pervasive and palpable. Loss aversion kicks in and there may be a search for the familiarity of the old status quo.
    Enter the Transforming Idea. Astute leaders recognise that change cannot be entirely mapped out in advance and forced through with inflexible plans. They create an experience of change where transforming ideas can and are encouraged to surface, where ideas get recognised, and where learning and discovery is prized.
  4. Integration: the phase of learning about new practices and new tools. Energy lifts and excitement starts to build for what could be. More ideas mean more experimentation. Some ideas will not work, and systems can fall back into chaos. Indeed there are organisations that oscillate between chaos and integration, stuck in a liminal phase where no benefits are ever truly realised. Is your organisation one of these? A quick succession of new leaders, each looking to make their mark, can stir up this state.
  5. New status quo: supportive environments and continued enrichment assist with moving from chaos towards positive resolution. Familiarity with new ways starts to settle in and ‘the way things get done around here’ becomes established and known, providing relief and relaxation.

Your responses to the events of life are more important than the events themselves. – Virginia Satir

The model is valuable as it provides one tool for dealing with major unexpected change. In my mind, I see how this thinking is actually aiming at building ‘antifragile’. I find Virginia Satir to be a source of inspiration in our digital age, reminding us of what is important but may be forgotten.

The principles informing Satir’s view of transformational change are:
• experiential (encouraging a full and meaningful perception of one’s own life),
• systemic (interacting with others, past, present, future, and environment),
• positively directional (generating new interpretations of experiences with the help of others, a positive approach, strengthening personal resources)
• focused on getting to know one’s self better.

Satir energetically urges us to tune into our own wisdoms, to get excited about who we are, what we are, and what can still be for us. Implicit in this approach is not resilience but rather a relish for the positive opportunity that lies in wait. Satir was one of few therapists to record her therapeutic sessions with individuals and groups. This is a courageous move, one I see repeated recently in a podcast from Esther Perel, another highly on-point therapist whose work extends to the corporate sphere. Perel records her live session with two business partners going separate ways. It is a fascinating listen. The transcripts of Satir’s work reveal a deeply human figure, vigorously and faithfully extending a hand, a connection to those struggling to make sense of the chaos in which they find themselves. These are human problems, she often says, normalising the feelings overwhelming her clients. The main goals of her work were to raise self-esteem, boost decision-making skills, become responsible and achieve congruence. With these in place, conflict in the family could be minimised. We can see why these goals have a salience wider than the institution of the family, notably, within the institutions of business. Her approach is humble, honest and responsible.

The cycles of Stair’s model of change continue, but perhaps it feels as though they are speeding up. We are familiar with and have extensively applied a modus operandi of clarity and direction – these are expected of strong and successful leaders, especially in more changeable times. And yet rushing for certainty too quickly could trap us into a state of diminishing returns, where we oscillate between chaos and integration. Satir’s hand of connection through change was vigorous and positively directional, but she pushed insight, decision-making skills, responsibility and congruence. With these factors, unproductive conflict in the system was reduced.

A new status quo


Leaders largely control the resources of the system and set the conditions for learning and experimentation within it. When foreign elements appear and descent into chaos looms, leaders can strip employees of their autonomy and contribution. This is perhaps where we are now, the “late status quo” in Satir’s model. Or, perhaps they may choose to empower humans to become antifragile, to navigate chaos and surface transforming ideas for experimentation and implementation. In this scenario, as leaders we may be able to offer less clarity, and as employees our agency and responsibility may rise. We all need to get used to these shifts. But the probability that we will thrive through chaos will surely go up.

Follow Gaylin on Twitter: @gaylinjee

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