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Adopting Agile Part 4: Robustness versus resilience
Stephen de Villiers Graaff
Agile Coach and Consultant, DVT

Adopting Agile Part 4: Robustness versus resilience

Robustness versus resilience

My last article on Agile software methodology introduced the fairly new concept of antifragile. The next two articles will diverge slightly, taking a few steps back to see how I arrived at the antifragile epiphany.

As organisations try to steel themselves against failure they often err on the side of robustness rather than resilience. They build themselves up, put checks and balances in place, but fail to take into account that failure is inevitable in almost any system.

In trying to avoid failure, robust systems become crippled, because failure isn’t catered for. Resilient systems, on the other hand, prepare for failure by focusing on early detection, fast recovery, and the ability to exploit the opportunities that develop as a result.

A purely robust system is highly process-based and engineered to the nth degree to return what it needs to return no matter what happens. Any break in the system is usually catastrophic. On the other hand, a purely resilient system is flexible enough to deal with any change, be it internal or external. This makes it very hard to predict what the system will look like, given its sensitivity to even the slightest pressure.

For most organisations, the balance lies somewhere between the two. There’s no value in pure robustness or pure resilience. Both are necessary in part; you need robustness in the short term to handle fast moving shocks, but need to build in resilience to manage future stresses.

As is often the case, nature serves us perfect examples to illustrate these somewhat abstract concepts.

Before the dawn of commercial whaling, blue whales had a global biomass of 35 million tonnes (based on a population of 300,000). As the largest living creature to have inhabited the Earth, they had no natural predators.

However, they could not adapt. After years of heavy whaling, the population of blue whales dropped to 5,000, and 50 years after the moratorium against whaling the species was signed, the population still hasn’t recovered.

Blue whales are nature’s ultimate robust organism.

Termites live on the complete opposite end of the scale. They have a biomass of 445 million tonnes (100 million tonnes more than humans), despite the fact that we are always trying to eradicate them. They live in massive, flexible and fluctuating colonies and are highly sensitive – and responsive – to changes in the environment.

Termites are nature’s ultimate resilient organism.

Back in the business world, the move to resilience goes hand in glove with the move from traditional frameworks to agile. An agile mindset is a resilient mindset. It accepts change will happen, and that things will happen which we don’t yet know about. We cannot plan for everything; we need to have that flexibility to adapt, or risk cultivating a false sense of imperviousness.

With a robust system, our investments are made to reinforce our current position. We take constant steps to make ourselves impervious to damage, stockpile our resources, and arm ourselves against negative influences.

A resilient system focuses us instead on our ability to adapt; change becomes based on what the situation becomes; and investments are made in networks, communities and the future of the business.

In business as in nature, it’s important to draw the distinction between the two, just as it’s important to find a workable balance between them.

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