The Five R’s of Resilience
Whether it is political turmoil, personal life issues, outbreaks of disease, economic changes, technological changes, financial problems, health problems, or “just” a sudden job loss, we’re all going to go through difficult times at some point in our lives. And if you’ve observed other people (or yourself) for a while, you’ve probably also noticed that there are a lot of differences in outcomes for different people for very similar situations. The same is also true of systems. In most cases, the system or person that quickly recovers from a bad situation does so because they limit the damage the situation causes, are able to quickly return to normal operation, and because they have mitigated the long term negative impacts of the situation. In general, this also means that they anticipated the situation to some degree, learned from the situation when it occurred, and did not succumb to panic when the situation occurred.
Resilience is tricky though, especially when it comes to emotionally charged situations or situations with a high degree of risk (arguably, you could say that an emotionally charged situation is a situation where there is a perception of a high degree of risk). Additionally, resilience is also tough to implement well, because the practices that improve resilience often decrease efficiency. This can be especially pernicious at the end of a long period of stability when efficiency has been prioritized over resilience – eventually something happens and things break. It can be hard to argue that resilience needs to be improved until a bad situation happens.
One of the main drivers of civilization itself is a desire for resilience, so we’re often discussing how to make systems more resilient when we are talking about other topics. One could, for instance, argue that most mass political movements in the last century or two were, at their root, really just attempts to either improve stability for large groups of people or responses to that stability being disrupted. In short, resilience is a really big deal at every scale, and is something you should be considering at every scale as well.
Resilience is a big topic and we aren’t going to cover it all this year. However, there are general principles to keep in mind when trying to make yourself, your family, your company, or a system for which you are responsible more resilient when dealing with sudden changes. The characteristics of resilience take effort, thought, and introspection in order to implement, but the results are worth it. Resilience makes it more likely that a person or system will be able to recover after a crisis, and it also tends to shorten the length of a crisis while reducing the damage that it does.
What resilience isn’t
Resilience is not simply toughness, although toughness can be a part of it. Simply being able to absorb damage does not make you resilient, as there comes a point where the damage overwhelms you. Toughness is part of robustness, however, which we will discuss shortly. Resilience is also not insurance. That is, having some backup plan that makes you whole after a disaster is helpful, but it does not reduce the damage done by a disaster.
It is also not analysis paralysis. There is no point in building the “perfect” resilient system if you never launch it. There will always be some level of risk, but never doing anything is also an extremely risky position. “Passing the buck” is also not a resilient practice. Systems and people that outsource negative externalities to others are still at risk, because they eventually are recognized as a risk to those other people/systems. This means that they get cut off, making the next failure catastrophic.
Robustness is the ability to absorb and withstand shocks to a system. In other words, a system (or person) can be considered robust if a break in a dependency is absorbed rather than being pushed out into the rest of the system. This incorporates several attributes. The first is that the situation is actually monitored so that a crisis is noted when it occurs (so other portions of the system can respond). In personal terms, it means being honest with yourself about your own mental state.
Robustness also includes modularity. A break in one part of a system should not propagate throughout the entire system, even at the risk of more severe damage to a particular component. In personal terms, it means having appropriate boundaries between areas of your life so that one area doesn’t destroy everything.
Redundancy requires excess capacity and backup systems for critical operations. In other words, a system or person is considered to have redundancy if there are backup systems in place for critical operations. To some degree, this could be as simple as insurance.
This has a few attributes. The first is that for critical subsystems, there should be some sort of backup that can quickly be brought online. In personal terms this would mean having backup plans for critically important things and being able to switch quickly. Redundancy also implies diversity in mechanisms for a particular function. For things that are absolutely critical, you may not want to have just a single type of backup system. An example of this in personal terms is that you need to have more than one markteable skill.
Resourcefulness is the ability to adapt to a crisis, respond in a flexible manner, and (if possible), transform a negative into a positive. A primary attribute of resourcefulness is the ability to self-organize. In teams, this means that your team is empowered to make decisions for itself in the absence of management. In personal life, this means being willing to make decisions in your own best interest, without relying on group consensus to do so.
Another attribute of resourcefulness is creativity. This means being willing and able to consider other options and to have the spare resource capacity to do so (this latter is very important).
Response (or responsiveness)
Responsiveness is the ability to mobilize quickly in the face of a crisis. If it takes so long to react to a crisis that by the time you react, you can’t recover, then redundancy and robustness don’t help much.
A pillar of responsiveness is effective communication and trust of a system. If you can’t articulate what is wrong, it’s very difficult to fix it. In personal terms, this would mean that you are honest with others about a crisis as you enter it, rather than telling them about it too late to help.
The ability to respond quickly also means that stakeholders are involved and have a shared understanding of risks. Not only does this mitigate risk somewhat, but it means that in a crisis, the people that need to be involved have some idea of what’s going on. In personal terms, the opposite of this is having your spouse be blissfully unaware of things like family finances…
Recovery is the ability to return to some degree of normality after a crisis. This includes the ability of a system to adapt to perceived changes in risk profile after a crisis. It also includes “catching up” on anything that got backlogged during a crisis.
A primary attribute of this is “horizon scanning”, that is, being continually on the lookout for upcoming threats and gaps in your knowledge, especially those uncovered during a crisis. In personal terms, this means learning from mistakes.
This also includes having a responsive feedback mechanism in place after a crisis. This means that you quickly apply what you learned from one crisis, so that you aren’t a sitting duck for the next one. In personal terms, this can often mean introspection into the reasons you ended up in bad situation previously, so that you don’t do it again.
Tricks of the Trade
While resilience comes out in times of crisis, it’s not developed during those times. It is developed during the good times, the easy times, by how you set yourself up and how you behave. It is easy to say “if I only had this” or “if I’d been given that” when we are in tough times, but that doesn’t do us any good. Prepare for the tough times when times are good so that you will have the resources you need or that you will have the skills you need. While you are in a dream job, don’t get lazy but instead work on improving your skills as if you wanted to leave as soon as possible. Not only will doing this afford you the ability to find a new job if that dream becomes a nightmare, but it will also open up opportunities for even better things while you are still at the good one.