Seven characteristics of resilience

November 16, 2012

Today saw the first course I have run specifically on the subject of resilience.  It was an experiment but one that we will repeat and refine over the next few months..  It provides a tight focus for some of the wider complexity principles and is an issue of considerable importance for an increasingly stressed economic and social system globally.   Its important to distinguish resilience from robustness,  The latter is the ability to withstand threat, the former to ability to recover quickly. 

A common mistake is to assume that resilience means to recover as is, which is an over narrow definition.  Often failure means rebirth, creating something new, recognising that the old is no longer sustainable.  A point I made in the seminar with reference to the chaos sub-domain model of Cynefin.  If you are thrown into chaos in an unexpected way without any ability to manage constraints then there is little alternative but to accept the process of destruction and rebirth.  Trying to prevent final collapse will just expend energy that you will need post-collapse to create something new and more sustainable.   That, fortunately is rare, but most of the time if a system suffers trauma of a kind then while it may recover, it never recovers unchanged.

I'll post more on resilience over the next few months.  I'm also going to revise the course having run it for the first time today.  I did however identify some seven characteristics of managing for resilience during the day although I am only now making them explicit as a group.

Early days, but here they are (and they will change)

  1. For a system to be resilient it must be capable of dynamic re-organisation on the fly.  That means it must be capable of rapid coupling and decoupling while maintaining a degree of system coherence.
  2. Dynamic re-organisation is greatly facilitated by modularity (or finely grained objects to reference my three heuristics of complex adaptive systems).  That means small units that can combine and recombine, or even split off and reform with ease.  Not so small that there is no coherence, but small enough for recombination.
  3. Managing for resilience means building networked capability before you need it not when you need it.  That means techniques like social network stimulation which, over two years can connect everyone in an organisation within three degrees of separation based on some form of usable trust.
  4. Critically you need fast feedback loops into decision makers so that they can ride the wave of disruption.  That means creating human sensor networks with supporting technology around current day purpose, that can be activated for extraordinary purpose in the context of need.
  5. Modularity means that a system is capable of swarming and clustering to meet unforeseeable circumstances in real time.  Crews, an important new idea in non-military environments provide the right level of modularity and instant operational capability that are essential to speedy response.
  6. Synchrony is a real danger, its one of the main indications of impending collapse.  This is linked to the Cynefin concept of complacency, where everything seems ordered and controlled just before catastrophic failure.  Over focus on things like sick stigma means that organisations start to build synchrony before it occurs naturally thus hastening the collapse.
  7. Diversity and what I call requisite variety are key.  Without diversity, and dare I say it contradiction, a system lacks the capacity to evolve quickly as it has too few things to build on.  Conformity and consensus are the enemy of managing under conditions of uncertainty.

As I say, early days and I'll be working these up in more detail, probably putting some of the new material into the Boston Advanced course in a few weeks time.

For the moment my own personal resilience is about to be tested with a long flight to Auckland for a single nights stay before going onto Calgary.  Thats a lot of travel and a lot of time difference.  More on that as the patterns unfold.





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About the Cynefin Company

The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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