Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

April 29, 2011

Principles of good practice for advancing resilience: Awareness of complex context and connections

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on April 29, 2011

(This is the second in a two-part series on a possible set of principles of good practice for resilience. The first part appeared on Friday, April 22)

Psychologists and sociologists increasingly view resilience not as an extraordinary characteristic, but a common feature of healthy individuals and communities. We are resilient because resilience is required to deal with everyday reality. The process of structuring, unstructuring, and restructuring is typically persistent and reasonably incremental; so much so, we may mostly take-for-granted our habits of resilience.

But when our environment takes an extraordinary turn, the ability to apply these – sometimes unrecognized – habits under duress can be fundamental to the survival of individuals, communities, and systems.

Reality is complicated, often complex, and sometimes chaotic. There are also moments of real simplicity. The context is known, our relationships are straightforward, and choices are clear. We have the experience, knowledge, and confidence to make effective choices. With agility we anticipate challenges. We are flexible when surprised.

A big part of our joy with a championship basketball team or a great jazz ensemble is our experience of wonderful choices unfolding in real-time. It is especially thrilling to watch a team make resilient choices that bring them back from behind. We recognize the analogies to our own lives, whether we articulate the analogies or not.

A championship basketball team or a great jazz ensemble or a world-class symphony or a victorious army does not take these resilient habits for granted. They practice, they study past performance, they are rigorously coached, they recruit the best possible individual talent and they continuously work to blend various talents into an integrated whole. They actively seek new challenges, new compositions, new competitors, uncommon approaches to doing better what they already do very well. They structure, unstructure, restructure.

David Snowden and Cynthia Kurtz offer a conceptualization and methodology especially germane to potential catastrophe. What they call the Cynefin Framework – from the Welsh term for a deep sense of place and kinship – helps us make sense of our shifting reality.

Cynefin Framework (2003)

All of these places are familiar to us. We begin most days with what is known: simple, repeatable, and predictable patterns of behavior and relationships. Most days the routine works as expected. Driving to work we monitor our context for unpredictable, but knowable changes. A vehicle breakdown five miles ahead gives us the opportunity to choose an alternate route. We still get to work on time.

Working through our relationships can be more complex. Cause-and-effect can be unclear or actively hidden, patterns morph, personalities flare, and unusual problems arise. But many of us are actually paid to engage the unusual problems. We enjoy the give-and-take, the creative and reflective process of probing with possible solutions, sensing the good and bad outcomes, and working to wrestle the complex into the knowable and eventually corral it as known.

Emergency management, homeland security, public safety and related disciplines are accustomed to complexity. As individuals and organizations we may actually thrive on complexity. Police, firefighters, emergency managers and their professional siblings tend to be drawn to the work precisely because of the sense of accomplishment – and adventure and service – that comes from wrestling complexity and winning.

But on occasion complexity cascades into something considerably different. Here’s how Kurtz and Snowden describe it:

Un-ordered domain: Chaos. In the first three domains we have described, there are visible relationships between cause and effect. In the chaotic domain there are no such perceivable relations, and the system is turbulent; we do not have the response time to investigate change. Applying best practice is probably what precipitated chaos in the first place; there is nothing to analyze; and waiting for patterns to emerge is a waste of time. The chaotic domain is in a very real sense uncanny, in that there is a potential for order but few can see it—or if they can, they rarely do unless they have the courage to act. In known space it pays to be canny, that is, to know how to work the system in all its intricacies (canny meaning not only shrewd but safe). But in chaotic space, a canny ability gets you nowhere (there is no system to be worked). You need a different type of ability, one that is uncannily mysterious, sometimes even to its owner. Canny people tend to succeed in their own lifetimes; uncanny people tend to be recognized and appreciated only centuries later, because during their time their actions appeared to be either insane or pointless. Each of these styles has a unique ability to succeed in a particular space, and each is necessary.

In homeland security, public safety, emergency management, and related endeavors uncanny individuals, communities, and systems are called heroes.

Michael Jordan was great, the Chicago Bulls were uncanny. After 1987 an alchemy of weirdly diverse relationships transformed the team and even the game. Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones were individually great musicians. Playing together they were uncanny.

Can the uncanny be consciously cultivated? The example of the Bulls and the Miles Davis Quintet demonstrate it is possible, even as precise cause-and-effect continues to be mysterious.  Will the Miami Heat make the transition to uncanny?

A potential catastrophe often emerges on the cusp of complexity and chaos. Effective preparedness for catastrophe enables key decision-makers and actors recognize when the boundary is being crossed and creative probing is no longer sufficient. Probing and waiting to see the outcome is not an effective way to engage chaos. Decisive acting – even while entirely uncertain – and responding rapidly to the outcome of acting — is the strategy for this “particular space.”

Kurtz and Snowden warn of another boundary that bears watching, and this boundary is especially relevant when dealing with a potential catastrophe. They write,

Movement at the known-chaos boundary. This boundary is the strongest of the four, in which a perfectly working machine operates inches away from a devastating fire. For that reason, this boundary is the most dangerous—and the most powerful if treated with respect… We have seen a tendency for organizations to oscillate between the domains of the known and the chaotic, avoiding the upper domains. Organizations settle into stable symmetric relationships in known space and fail to recognize that the dynamics of the environment have changed until it is too late. The longer the period of stability and the more stable the system, the more likely it is for asymmetric threats or other factors to precipitate a move into chaos. The decision makers in the system don’t see things that fall outside the pattern of their expectation, and they continue not to see them until finally the system breaks and they find themselves in chaos.

For the most experienced professionals many aspects of emergencies and disasters are known, understood, even predictable. There is good practice, proven protocol, and effective incident command. But when chaos begins to cascade over the boundary, failure to notice the change in context and relationships – failure to recognize the unfolding reality – will produce non-agile and inflexible reactions which will accelerate and compound the chaos.

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5 Comments »

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 29, 2011 @ 12:30 am

So is it ART? Or SCIENCE? And how does luck factor into RESILIENCE? How do various scientific disciplines define RESILIENCE? Sociology? Biology? History? Ecology? Geology? Climatology? Meteorology? Agronomy? Virology? Bacteriology? Engineering? Political scientists? Public Administration students? Demographers? etc. etc. Is survival resilience? In the individual or across generations?
Hey did you know the English Royals became The House of Winsor in WWI so as to distinguish themselves from their GERMAN ancestary? Will the insects inherit the Earth? Is life resilient? What is life? What is a virus? Are they resilient? Noltice published definitions of Resilience by DHS?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

April 29, 2011 @ 4:15 am

Bill, I will (foolishly?) offer a couple of answers: I perceive the pursuit of resilience to be a science-informed art. The artistry is especially in how we participate, collaborate, deliberate and then choose to act regarding risk.

A master marathoner was asked if he would win. He responded with something like, “You are asking two questions: Am I prepared and will I be lucky? I can confidently say, I am prepared to win. I do not know if I will be lucky.”

Comment by William R. Cumming

April 29, 2011 @ 10:57 am

Thanks PHIL! Chance favors the prepared? Maybe maybe not!

Comment by Hank Christen

May 1, 2011 @ 7:08 am

Resilience is an answer to Taleb’s Black Swan. I also see an integration of some other fairly sound theories to underpin and complement resilience. For example, Klein’s recognition-primed decision making, Weick’s sensemaking, and Boyd’s OODA loop. The Alabama tornadoes showed that resistance does not always work.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

May 1, 2011 @ 7:40 am

Mr. Christen, Thanks. For the benefit of other readers, some links:

The recognition primed decision model by Karol Ross, Gary Klein et al.

Sensemaking in Organizations by Karl E. Weick

My first piece in this series focused on application of Boyd’s OODA Loop. Please see: Five Principles of Good Practice.

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