Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 22, 2011

Resilience: Five principles of good practice

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 22, 2011

Preparing for catastrophe is mostly about cultivating resilience. The more resilient the person, community, or system, the more likely the preexisting equilibrium – or something close – can be reclaimed after a crisis. The less resilience, the more likely a crisis will become a catastrophe and an entirely new equilibrium will emerge.

On March 30, 2011 Presidential Policy Directive 8 was signed-out: “This directive is aimed at strengthening the security and resilience of the United States through systematic preparation for the threats that pose the greatest risk to the Nation, including acts of terrorism, cyber attacks, pandemics, and catastrophic natural disasters. Our national preparedness is the shared responsibility of all levels of government, the private and nonprofit sectors, and individual citizens. Everyone can contribute to safeguarding the Nation from harm.” The directive continues, “The term resilience refers to the ability to adapt to changing conditions and withstand and rapidly recover from disruption due to emergencies.”

What can we do to enhance our ability to adapt, withstand and rapidly recover?

Over the years HLSWatch has given considerable attention to the psycho-social resilience of individuals and communities. We have also looked at sources of resilience and non-resilience in supply chains and other systems. While there are clearly differences in how a person or a process becomes resilient – and what it means for a person or a process to be resilient – there are also shared characteristics. For an individual or community or system, an increasing body of evidence suggests resilience is more likely when there is:

  • Awareness: Observe and engage the full context,
  • Connectedness: Recognize and engage our full range of relationships and dependencies,
  • Realism: Differentiate between cause and effect, capacity and capability, novelty and continuity.
  • Agility: Expect change in context and relationships, remain creatively open to change, and actively embrace change.
  • Flexibility: Expand the “basin of attraction” where and how turbulence can occur without threatening our fundamental identity.

Some individuals demonstrate what seems to be a natural predisposition for many or even all of these attitudes and actions. In communities and systems, a sustained attention to all five characteristics requires an organized approach and/or deep normative sanctions. For individuals, communities, and systems there is evidence that resilience can be intentionally developed and strengthened.

OODA Loops: Observation, Orientation, Decision, Action

One methodology for intentionally developing resilience is application of a disciplined process of observation, orientation, decision, and action. OODA is one of the foundations of modern military doctrine. It is also a crystallization of an ancient understanding of how humans learn, generate knowledge, and engage the world.

The modern military application was articulated by John Boyd, an iconoclastic Air Force Colonel and fighter pilot. In 1976 Boyd wrote,

To comprehend and cope with our environment we develop mental patterns or concepts of meaning… We destroy and create these patterns to permit us to both shape and be shaped by a changing environment… We cannot avoid this kind of activity if we intend to survive on our own terms. The activity is dialectic in nature generating both disorder and order that emerges as a changing and expanding universe of mental concepts matched to a changing and expanding universe of observed reality.

But we are often unconscious of the process or even deny this process. As a result we do not acknowledge the choices we make to destroy or create or the attitudes and impressions that inform our (non)choices. This is non-resilient behavior.

Complete awareness of our whole context is not humanly possible. Meaningful engagement with the full range of our existing relationships is unlikely. But Boyd and others show the significant benefits produced by being particularly disciplined in developing awareness, connectedness, realism, agility, and flexibility.

We tend to see what we are prepared to see, even what we want to see. This is because what we observe is influenced by our orientation, which is the outcome of prior direct and indirect experience.  Our lessons learned become the mental concepts we regularly apply to make sense of unfolding reality. This is all very efficient until reality shifts and presents us with something novel. Then, unless we recognize and adapt quickly to the novelty, our well-developed concepts become our biggest impediments. Too often our preexisting concepts work to suppress and delay our recognition of novelty… until it is too late.

The resilient individual, community, or system organizes itself around well-established proven concepts. The resilient individual, community, or system also actively engages in a disciplined process of challenging – Boyd calls it “destruction” of – proven concepts. According to Boyd,

We can expect unexplained and disturbing ambiguities, uncertainties, anomalies, or apparent inconsistencies to emerge more and more often… Fortunately, there is a way out… We can forge a new concept by applying the destructive deduction and creative induction mental operations… In order to perform these dialectic mental operations we must first shatter the rigid conceptual pattern, or patterns, firmly established in our mind.

Consciously, proactively, we engage in self-antithesis and self-synthesis and in this way enhance self-resilience to whatever the risk.

Japan is the world leader in earthquake and tsunami preparedness. Japanese culture typically tends to be quite context-sensitive. Some important context: In 1896 and 1933 there were powerful earthquakes off the Sanriku coast that spawned tsunamis very similar to that of March 11, 2011. But in designing tsunami countermeasures and emergency plans for the Fukushima nuclear power station the Japanese used as their benchmark the 1960 Valdivia earthquake and tsunami. This involved a 9.5 earthquake in Chile that produced an 18-to-30 foot tsunami along the coast of Northeastern Japan. Partly due to proximity, the March tsunami was three or more times higher in some locations. The broader context we engage, the more resilient we will be.

In the aftermath of the March 11 earthquake-and-tsunami many manufacturers – especially in the automobile and electronics industries – were surprised by previously unrecognized relationships they had with Northeastern Japan. While the US (or Chinese or European) manufacturer often had no direct connection with the quake affected area, it was suddenly learned a subcomponent of a subcomponent was entirely dependent on a single source that was now without power and trying to clean up from the earthquake or worse. Replacements are in short supply or simply not available. As the supply chain drains, production lines are slowed or even stopped. Seeking to reduce complexity we can unrealistically deny or neglect relationships. Eventually such denial will only amplify complexity. Recognizing and cultivating a diverse range of relationships enhances resilience.

Reality is complicated, often complex, and sometimes chaotic. But unless we engage reality on its own terms, it will bite us… hard. To be radically realistic we must be open to ongoing change, actively agile in embracing change and flexible when we are still surprised (and we will be surprised).  Boyd describes reality as,

…the process of Structure, Unstructure, Restructure, Unstructure, Restructure is repeated endlessly in moving to higher and broader levels of elaboration. In this unfolding drama, the alternating cycle of entropy increase toward more and more disorder and the entropy decrease toward more and more order appears to be one part of a control mechanism that literally seems to drive and regulate this alternating cycle of destruction and creation toward higher and broader levels of elaboration.

Next time: What are the higher and broader levels of elaboration specific to resilience?


Some previous posts related to resilience:

Resilience: How much can we absorb?

Resilience Redux: Our capacity for creative community response

Crafting catastrophe, Choosing Resilience

Real Life Resilience

Food Security: Do Economies of scale suppress risk resilience?

Resilient Character

Other resources:

Resilience: The Grand Strategy

Building Resilient Communities

Building Community Disaster Resilience through Private-Public Collaboration


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Comment by William R. Cumming

April 22, 2011 @ 1:31 am

Great post SENSEI [sic?]! Your getting ZEN like Phil in your resilience efforts.

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April 29, 2011 @ 12:04 am

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May 6, 2011 @ 12:11 am

[…] Two weeks ago I quoted from the work of a rather obscure, now dead, Air Force colonel named John Boy….  For reasons tied to his obscurity, Boyd is a principal progenitor of a revolution in the way we fight and increasingly how we compete in many non-military domains.  Boyd, a fighter pilot whose final academic degree was a bachelors in industrial engineering, was also a great reader of Immanuel Kant. Human reason has a peculiar fate… it is troubled by questions it cannot dismiss, because they are posed to it by the nature of reason itself, but that it also cannot answer, because they surpass human reason’s every ability. Our reason falls into this perplexity through no fault of its own. Reason starts from principles that it cannot avoid using in the course of experience and that this experience at the same time sufficiently justifies it in using. By means of these principles our reason (as indeed it nature requires it to do) ascends ever higher, to more remote conditions. But it becomes aware that in this way, since the questions never cease, its task must remain forever uncompleted. Thus it finds itself compelled to resort to principles that go beyond all possible use in experience, and that nonetheless seem so little suspect that even common human reason agrees with them. By doing this, however human reason plunges into darkness and contradictions; and although it can indeed gather from these that they must be based on errors lying hidden somewhere, it is unable to discover these errors. (Critique of Pure Reason, Preface to the First Edition, Immanuel Kant translated by Werner S. Pluhar) […]

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