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The case for resilience

As human beings we spend much of our time attempting to create consistency, producing a constant product, creating reliable and repeatable interactions. We all have mental models into which we attempt to shoehorn daily events and interactions. And yet our survival is tied not to constants, but to our ability to deal with variables – with change.

The dictionary defines resilience: “the ability to bounce or spring back into shape, position, etc., after being pressed or stretched. Elasticity. The ability to recover strength, spirits, good humor, or any other aspect quickly.” Resilience allows us to respond to and tolerate all kinds of variables. Our bodies can manage and respond to wide temperature variations, heal cuts and scrapes, speed up or slow down metabolism, and continually rewire our brain’s neural pathways. Add to this our ability to be intelligent, to learn, interact with others, and design and create things beyond ourselves. Our bodies are a good example of a resilient system.

It is easier to see stability than resilience. And, without a whole-system view, it is easier to value stability over resilience. For example: Just-in-time deliveries have stabilized inventories and often reduced costs. But, a look at the larger system shows that the just-in-time model makes the entire production system more vulnerable to shipping delays caused by weather, technology downtime, and other uncontrollable variables.

Systems, whether our bodies or our organizations need to be managed to ensure resilience, not its opposite – constancy, rigidity, and inflexibility. And yet, we are easily and continually distracted by individual events – a conversation, an e-mail, or a news story. We need to find ways to maintain a larger system view. Some of the ways to do this are to assess events by considering the history, information, relationships, and dynamic data of the whole system. We can mindfully look at and reflect on the system, its structure and relationships.  Time spent thus increases potential to discover ways of increasing our organization’s ability to restore itself, be creative, and build elastic walls that allow the organization and ourselves to not only bounce back from unforeseen events, but to embrace change.

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