B for Brittle — How to embrace fragility?

By Daniela Malqui


BANI replaced VUCA, a term coined by the U.S. Army War College in the late 80s. Later on, business leaders adopted the acronym to develop agile approaches to leadership, thinking, and working. VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous conditions. However, some will argue that VUCA no longer describes the current state of the world, and instead the acronym BANI is more appropriate.

Brittle, Anxious, Non-Linear, and Incomprehensible is the acronym BANI. When combined, these four words describe the state of the world today, what we are experiencing as individuals and as a society.

Why are we using such an acronym in the first place? Well, categorizing is something we do as a strategy to survive or cope with a variety of situations in life. BANI’s mere existence and acceptance by so many would be a relief to some as they understand that BANI is a humanitarian-state, not an individual struggle. Being out-there also affords us as a community the chance to acquire tools to not just confront reality but thrive in it.

This is the first post in a series of four, each article delving into one of the words comprising the acronym BANI.

B for Brittle

Brittle = something hard but liable to break easily. At first, I thought of social media and the fine line between appearance and true nature. Why is it important to distinguish between appearance and actual nature? Because we tend to act unconsciously based on beliefs, we create based on what we perceive.

Brittle = Illusory Strength. I was instantly drawn to that definition because accepting it would mean accepting that being prone to breakage makes you illusory strong. In other words, if you break, you are not strong — and that is far from the truth! Ultimately, we and everything else is susceptible to breaking. Our weaknesses cannot be compared with our strengths. A key to building strength is identifying, accepting, and acting on your flaws.

I then looked up the opposite of Brittle in Google, and found Flexible, Resilient. I loved seeing those two words together. My mind immediately conjured up a crane moving in the middle of a storm and how it would be able to withstand the storm safely. However, resilience is not the antonym of brittle, at least when using it to describe individuals, since resilience relates to a starting point and measures your ability to recover from misfortune, irrespective of your origin state. In other words, it relates to your outcome, not your starting point. Even someone brittle can be resilient, since resilience has nothing to your weak points, but rather with how you experience life, your self-love, ability to overcome challenges, and state of mind.

From Volatile (VUCA) to Brittle (BANI)

My first question when considering how we transition from volatile to brittle was what’s the main difference, both words describing something that can change rapidly in status. I found it interesting that the main difference is in the appearance. Perhaps it remains for us to look through and understand situations and people from their true selves.

How does Brittle affect leaders?

The ability to deal with brittle begins by recognizing three major aspects of the object in question: the whole, the strength, and the weak point. Once that is done, consider your intentions.

The known — At this point, we shouldn’t be surprised to see brittle people and situations all around us. When tackling a brittle system that can be identified as such ahead of time, if your goal is not to reach its breaking point, first determine what its breaking point is and then plan backwards from there. Learn what will cause to reach that breaking point, how it looks, and how you can recover from it. Then, you will be able to work on obtaining the tools you need to prevent or recover from brittle systems.

The unknown — To deal with brittle systems that were not recognized in advance will require a different set of skills, such as the ability to adapt quickly, but one skill remains imperative: the ability to admit the problem.

With the eruption of COVID-19 during the 2020–2021 period, we witnessed a vivid example of brittle systems. The earlier companies and individuals acknowledged the pandemic, the better their chances of mitigating its effects.

Now, just because you’ve admitted to something doesn’t mean you’ve got the skills and tools to deal with it. This is where your resilience will be put to the test and your ability to adapt comes into play. To adapt, we need to overcome the shock that unexpected situations provoke and be able to act instead of paralysed by fear or anxiety.

When it comes to dealing with unknowns, another important skill is having criteria — a key capability for professionals at strategic levels. Like resilience, I would suggest criteria is related to life experience, a connection with the present, knowledge of the past and future, and continuous learning.

Beat Brittle with Resilience

The brittle nature of the world means that it is crucial to embrace the fragility of our systems and work in an agile manner so that we can adapt to sudden changes, uncertainty, and even worst-case scenarios. That applies to everyone, mainly leaders.

Leaders deal with their own brittle-self, as well as brittle people and brittle systems. What is the best way to inspire, keep calm, and empower others in a tumultuous world?

By summarizing all the above, brittle can be overcome through resilience. So, to be prepared and make the most of the brittle world we live in, it is better to:

1. Develop your ability to identify and accept brittle systems.

2. When it is identified, understand its weak point at three levels: what it is, whether there is a specific cause that will accelerate it, and how it looks when it is reached.

3. Plan recovery and prevention strategies to increase resilience.

Helping employees at a company to become more resilient is crucial and will benefit both them and your organization. The more resilient your employees are, the better chance your company has of recovering from a crisis. As happiness and convincing have become important values for every HR professional, the ability to overcome difficulties or failures is equally important.

Knowing and coping with known brittle systems will make dealing with unknown ones much easier. In order to achieve this, we must live an empirical life, listen to others, learn from the past, challenge our beliefs, and continually learn.

In your next strategic meeting or quarterly review, discuss resilience as it relates to projects and individuals, so as to understand the organization’s resilience. You should ask your key managers in your organization whether they know their team members well, where they see weak points and what steps they are taking to prevent them from falling apart. The same applies to projects. Ask for two or three alternative plans if things do not go as planned and ask for a recovery plan as well. The recovery plan should not be a 100-page report but should outline the main activities.

While preparation won’t always prevent the unknown, it will provide you with tools to better cope with it.

Preventing Brittle

If we asked ourselves how our world became so brittle, we would find that brittleness often stems from efforts to increase efficiency. Efficiency, efficiency, efficiency — we use this word so often as leaders and to ourselves.

So the question is whether extracting every bit of value or time will result in the best system. As we look at a day in our lives, we see how inactivity helps us be more productive when we are active. In the same way, sometimes we are asked to turn off computers to improve performance.

As prevention measures, we should remember that efficiency comes from balance: planning-doing balance, work-life balance, seriousness-cheerfulness balance. The more balance, the greater the chances of not breaking.

Technology and connectivity have brought efficiency to a whole new level. Data, machine learning, and AI allow us to leverage complex systems to their fullest potential. All technologies should be applied to improve effectiveness in our company. However, the question should be whether the same applies to people and other resources like nature or human beings.

As the last point, it is important to recognize that today, in a connected world, a single failure can affect the entire world. The impact is more catastrophic. It is not that our actions in the past had no impact, but we now are well aware of them. This is again demonstrated by COVID-19.

Companies and leaders have a mission to promote awareness and impact. As we become more aware of the consequences of our own mistakes, we become more likely to take responsibility and improve. Each company has a mission, and that mission connects to a larger idea. In order to increase meaning and interest, the mission of the company, the examples that demonstrate how it lives by its mission, and the impact every individual is creating should be clearly communicated to everyone. This will result in engaged employees, and when people are engaged, working on resilience will be much easier.

Good luck to all of us 😊

Article published Dec 14th, 2021




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Daniela Malqui

Daniela Malqui

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