Build Resilience

“It takes a licking and keeps on ticking”

A word of caution: answering the following question may reveal your age:
Do you remember the Timex watch commercial with John Cameron Swayze?

What word would you use to describe the Timex watch in the torture test? One word that comes to mind is robust.
The Collins Word dictionary defines “robust” as:

  1. strong in constitution; hardy; vigorous
  2. sturdily built: a robust shelter
  3. requiring or suited to physical strength: a robust sport
  4. (esp of wines) having a rich full-bodied flavour
  5. rough or boisterous (of thought, intellect, etc)
  6. straightforward and imbued with common sense

It aired on TV ~ 1970, the era when products were built to be tough, able to take a hit and keep on working.

Failure is not an option

If we had to pick a statement that characterized the Growth stage of the Systems Thinking paradigm, it would be NASA flight director Gene Kranz’s “Failure is not an option”.


Resilience Engineering book

When dealing with complex systems, not only do we recognize failures will indeed occur, we accept failure as a means to learn. Eric Hollnagel, David Woods, and Nancy Leveson: “Failure is the result of the adaptations necessary to cope with the complexity of the real world, rather than a breakdown or malfunction.”

Robustness +  Resilience

Commensurate with other paradigm shifts, system design thinking is changing from building Robust systems to including Resilient complex adaptive systems.  

Resilience is bouncing back. It’s understanding why the bounce occurred. It’s knowing where to look and not look. It’s bouncing to a better spot than the original.

For the past decade researchers have been evolving the study of resilience. In one refinement Erik Hollnagel suggests a resilient system has 4 essential abilities:

Hollnagel Resilience
Click to enlarge

In the following video, Dave Snowden describes an approach that explains the connection between Risk and Resilience and introduces 3 capabilities.

By using the Cynefin Framework we can depict Robustness as an attempt on the Ordered side to avoid a negative event with barriers and preventive measures.  An example in Safety would be the deployment of safety rules, equipment, and hazard signs.  If a failure occurs, we immediately fall into the Chaotic domain.

Path A (red) is most often followed and is a quick restoration back to the Ordered domain. However, path B (green) is also a viable option. This is a serendipitous opportunity which has surprisingly emerged. Path B is moving to the Complex domain to  exploit the opportunity in a rapid / speedy fashion. We probe the system with safe-to-fail experiments to observe behaviour patterns – what attracts people, what they don’t like.  Once a new pattern-based solution  is found, we move into the Complicated domain where we do fail-safe documentation on process, system, and structure changes.

As Snowden discussed in the video, there is one more capability called Anticipatory Awareness.  This is early detection but very different than Robustness barriers. All that Robustness can deal with are known hazards and risk of a linear system. Resilience deals with unknowables and unimaginables which are elements of a non-linear, complex adaptive system.

Human brains are demonstrably better at sensing weak signals and emerging patterns than machines. Therefore, a strategy to build Resilience will have humans in the loop supported by machines and not the other way around.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.