The Other Dimension of Resiliency

There's a lot of recent chatter about resiliency. Most discussion seems to revolve around a person's positive attitude in the face of personal setback or turmoil.

But what about purposefully-designed resiliency in organizations, systems, and processes? What does that look like? 

We were sitting in our backyard last week, enjoying the neighborly company. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the playground ball bounce off the chair. I just knew the wine glass wasn't going to survive. As suspected, the wine globe shattered into a thousand pieces onto the patio. And, seconds later, the bouncy ball was back in the hands of playful (but much more cautious!) children.

I laughed at the situation: rubber ball versus wine glass. The two exact examples of fragility and elasticity that I use in my recent discussions (and draft of THIS blog!) on resiliency. I found it ironic the two collided right there in front of my eyes.   
RESILIENCY: the ability for some object or item to return to its original state after being acted upon by an external force. 
The oft-cited metaphors of resiliency are rubber bands and metal springs. They are stretched or compressed by external forces - then immediately spring back to their original shapes. Another example of resiliency is when a person maintains a positive "carry on" attitude after the death of a loved one, a nasty divorce, or a job loss. Surely there is great value to keeping optimistic and encouraged when confronted with tragedy or stress.

However, most of these examples deal with only the elasticity, flexibility, or "bounce" aspects of resiliency. Each example requires that the object is substantially deformed, deflated, or depressed before bouncing back.

The other dimension of resiliency is fragility. (I've also seen an increasing number of people in the adaptive systems world use the term "anti-fragile" to describe the durability of a system or object.) Fragility alludes to the sensitivity to stress or change, or the effort required to cause a breakage. In the human realm: "thin skin."

Let's face it: if an object isn't affected by the force, stress, or change, then it doesn't have to rebound back to anything; it never moved or broke in the first place.

As a contingency-minded person, I most always have a Plan B. Usually a Plan C too. I'd venture to say most with "systems"-wired brains do. Backup plans increase the elasticity of the situation, when the original design breaks.

But what if our Plan A was just extremely tough to begin with? 

What are the critics saying? Everything has a breaking point. And I agree. Mighty oak trees. Bowling balls. Bomb shelters. But when? Under what amount of force or stress? Inside what conditions? Many of those breakages are under extreme catastrophe, with a statistically low potential for actually occurring. (That doesn't mean we should ignore those risks.)

Our personal lives, careers, and organizations are filled with systems, processes, equipment, and people: digital databases; records management programs; sports injuries; relationships; bicycles; works of art; gun safes; family photos; kids' schedules; unstable financial investments; online cloud sharing; vegetable gardens; delivery logistics; vacation plans. 

Each of these aspects of our lives require adaptability and resilience for when they undergo the ebb-and-flow of everyday stress...and the once-in-a-lifetime disaster.

When we examine the two dimensions of resiliency, we start to see that Plan B and C may actually be a component of well as elasticity. Acting immediately on a contingency plan reduces the breakage or deformation of the object, by remaining relatively unaffected. 

How else can we turn our systems, processes, and organizations into more anti-fragile ones? 
  1. Forecast the potential forces and stresses, and play "if-then." Anticipate change - resulting in advance observation, warning, and preparation.
  2. Ask the difficult questions of Why and How to learn more deeply about your situation, purpose, and methods.
  3. Have trustworthy outsiders probe for weaknesses, identifying situational changes that might adversely affect them.
  4. De-centralize responsibility and authority, and be wary of reliance upon linchpins...human, virtual, physical, or other!
  5. Strengthen and armor the system by building insensitivities and thick skin - thereby diminishing the relative power of stresses. 
Having an optimistic mindset and a positive attitude is an absolutely necessary component to resilience. For anything. But maybe, with some introspection and purposeful redesigning, we can bolster our systems and develop our people to shorten the rebound. Or need for it at all. 

Or we can keep buying new wine glasses. My wife likes that idea.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr


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