Complexity and organisational resilience

On the face of it, complex systems might have more resilience than those that are simple because they can have more safeguards built-in and more redundancy.

However, this is not supported by real world observation. Simply put, more complexity means more things can go wrong. In both nature and in human society, complex controls work well at maintaining systems within tight tolerances and in expected scenarios. However complex systems do not work well when they have to respond to circumstances which fall outside of their design parameters.

In the natural world, one place where complex systems fail is the immune system. Anaphylactic shock, where the body over-reacts because of an allergy to a food such as peanuts is a good example. Peanuts are of course, not pathogens, they are food, The immune system should not react to them. However people’s immune systems are made up of a number of complex systems built over the top of each other over many millions of years of evolution. One of these systems is particularly liable to overreact to peanuts. This causes in the worst case, death through anaphylaxis – effectively the release of chemicals which are meant to protect the body, but which do exactly the opposite. This is an example of where a safety system has become a vulnerability when it is engaged outside normal parameters.

We are beginning to see the resilience of complex systems such as the Great Barrier Reef severely tested by climate change. Researchers have found that the reef is made of complex interactions between sea fauna and flora, built upon other more complex interactions. This makes it nigh on impossible for researchers to find exact causes for particular effects, because they are so many and varied. Whilst the researchers confidently can say that climate change is having a negative effect on the coral and that bleaching effects will become more common as the climate becomes warmer, they cannot say with a great deal of certainty how great the other compounding effects such as excess nutrients from farm runoff or removal of particular fish species might be. This is not a criticism of the science, but more an observation that to predict the future with absolute certainty, when there are multiple complex factors at play is extremely difficult.

These natural systems are what some might call ‘robust yet fragile’. Within their design parameters they are strong and have longevity. Such systems tend to be good at dealing with anticipated events such as cyclones in the case of the Great Barrier Reef. However, when presented with particular challenges outside the standard model, they can fail.

Social systems and machines are not immune from the vulnerabilities that complexity can introduce into systems and can also be strong in some ways and brittle in others.

The troubles with the global financial system are a good example. Banking has become very complex and banking regulation has kept up with this trend. That might seem logical, but the complex rules may in themselves be causing people to calibrate the financial system to meet the rules, focussing on the administrivia of their fine print, rather than the broad aims that the rules were trying to achieve. As an example, one important set of banking regulations are the Basel regulations. The Basel 1 banking regulations were 30 pages long, the Basel 2 regulations were 347 pages long and the Basel 3 regulations are 616 pages. One estimate by McKinsey says that compliance for a mid-sized bank might cost as much as 200 jobs. If a bank needs to employ 200 people to cope with increased regulation, then the regulator will need some number of employees to keep up with the banks producing more regulatory reports, and so the merry-go-round begins!

A British banking regulator, Andrew Haldane is now one of a number of people who question whether this has gone too far and banks and banking regulation has become too complex to understand. In an interesting talk he gave in 2012 in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, USA titled the ‘Dog and the Frisbee’, Haldane uses the analogy of a dog catching a frisbee to suggest that there are hard ways and easy ways to work out how to catch a frisbee. The hard way involves some complex physics and the easy way involves using some simple rules that dogs use. Haldane points out that dogs are better in general at catching frisbees than physicists! I would also suggest that the chances of predicting outlier events, what Nicolas Taleb calls ‘Black Swans’  is greater using the simple predictive model.

This is in some ways a challenge to the traditional thinking behind risk modelling. When I did my risk course, it was all very formulaic. List threats, list vulnerabilities and consequences, discuss tolerance for risk, develop controls, monitor etc. I naively thought that risk assessment would save the world. But it can’t. Simple risk management just can’t work in a complex system. Firstly, it is impossible to identify all risks. To (misquote) Donald Rumsfeld, there are known risks, unknown risks, risks that we know we have, but can’t quantify and unknown risks that we can neither quantify nor know.

Added to this is the complex interaction between risks and the observation that elements of complex systems under stress can completely change their function (for better or worse). An analogy might be where one city under stress spontaneously finds that its citizens begin looting homes and another intensifies its neighbourhood watch program.

Thus risk assessment of complex systems is in itself risky. In addition, in a complex system, the aim is homeostasis, the risk model responds to each raindrop-sized problem, correcting the system minutely so there are minimal shocks and the system can run as efficiently as possible. A resilience approach might try to develop ways to allow the system/organisation/community to be presented with minor shocks, in the hope that when the black swan event arrives, the system has learnt to cope with at least some ‘off white’ events!

Societies are also becoming more complex. There are more interconnected yet separately functioning parts of a community than there were in the past. This brings efficiency and speed to the ways that things are done within the community when everything is working well. However when there is a crisis, there are more points of failure. If community B is used to coping without electricity for several hours a day, they develop ways to adapt over several months and years. If that community then finds that they have no power for a week, they are more prepared to cope than community A that has been able to depend on reliable power. Community B is less efficient than community A, but it is also less brittle.

This does however illustrate out a foible of humanity. Humans have evolved so that they are generally good at coping with crises (some better than others), however they are not good at dealing with creeping catastrophes such as climate change, systemic problems in the banking and finance sector, etc.

Most people see these things as problems, but think that the problems are so far away that they can be left whilst other more pressing needs are dealt with.

Sometimes you just need a good crisis to get on and fix long-term complex problems. Just hope the crisis isn’t too big.

Video Donald Rumsfeld – Known Knowns
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Visualising organisational resilience

Resilience

I’ve been trying to summarise organisational resilience into a form that can be visualised for some of the people who I’m working with. The key has been to summarise the thinking on resilience as succinctly as possible.

Apart from the diagram you can see, the text below attempts to give concise answers to the following questions

  1. What is it (Resilience)?
  2. Why should my organisation care about resilience?
  3. Why is detailed planning not working anymore (if it ever did)?
  4. What’s the recipe for resilience?
  5. How does an organisation develop these characteristics?
  6. Resilience before and after (a crisis)
  7. How does nature do resilience?

 

Resilience in a mindmap

Visualising resilience is itself an exercise in complexity

The diagram should be A3, so You can download a pdf version here resilience in a mindmap PDF

Let me take you on a journey …

What is it?

Resilience is about the ability to adapt for the future and to survive. Whether that is for an organisation, country or an individual.
What seems sometimes forgotten is that the adaptation is best done before a crisis!
And here Resilience is more an organisational strategic management strategy, and not a security protocol. In this sense, Resilience is the ‘why’ to Change Management’s ‘how’

Why should my organisation care about resilience?

Research shows that the average rate of turnover of large organisations is accelerating. from around 35 years in 1965 to around 15 years in 1995. Organisations that want to stick around need to adapt with the changing environment.

Organisations know that they need to change to survive, but today’s urgency overrides the vague need to do something about a long term problem.  For this reason, crises can be the  catalyst for change.

Resilience is about dealing with organisational inertia, because the environment will change. The more successful an organisation has been in the past, the more difficult it will be to make change and so it becomes susceptible to abrupt failure. Miller coined the term ‘Icarus Paradox‘ to describe the effect and wrote a book by the same name. Icarus was the fictional Greek character who with his son made wings made from feathers and wax, but died when he flew too close to the sun and the wax melted, causing the feathers to fall out of the wings.

It is possible that Eastman Kodak is the best example of this trait. An organisation that was very successful between 1880 and 2007, Kodak failed to make the transition to digital and to move out of film fast enough.

Why is detailed planning not working?

Simply put, the world is too complex and the outliers becoming more common

  1. increasing connectedness – interdependencies leading to increasing brittleness of society/organisations  – just in time process management – risks, in rare instances, may become highly correlated even if they have shown independence in the past
  2.  speed of communication forces speedier decisionmaking
  3. increasing complexity compounds the effect of any variability in data and therefore the uncertainty for decisionmakers
  4. biology –  we build systems with an optimism bias. Almost all humans are more optimistic about their future than statistically possible. We plan for a future which is better than it is and do not recognise the chances of outlier events correct. Additionally, we plan using (somewhat biased) rational thought, but respond to crises with our emotions.

So if

  • we can’t predict the outlier events and
  • this makes most strategy less useful– especially that which is written and gathers dust without being lived ,

maybe we can be more resilient when we run into the outliers. What Taleb calls the Black Swans in the book of the same name.

Taleb’s book is available from Book Depository and is well worth the read, even if he can’t help repeating himself and dropping hints about fabulous wealth.

What’s the recipe for resilience?

Bad news, there isn’t a hard recipe for a resilient organisation, just like there isn’t one for a successful company, but they all seem to share some common attributes such as:

  • Agility and the ability to recover quickly from an event and,
  • an awareness of their changing environment and the willingness to evolve with it amongst others.

How does an organisation develop these characteristics?

It is a combination of many things –

  • developing an organisational culture which recognises these attributes which is supported and facilitated from the top of the organisation;
  • partnering with other organisations to increase their knowledge and reach when an event comes; and
  • Lastly engaging in the debate and learning about best practices

 Resilience before and after (a crisis)

But is resilience just one set of behaviours or a number.  When we think of resilient organisations and communities, our minds tend to go to the brave community / people / organisation that rose up after a high consequence event and overcame adversity. These people and organisations persist in the face of natural and manmade threats. Numerous examples include New York after the September 2001 events; Brisbane after the floods in 2011; and the Asian Tsunami in 2004.

However there is another set of actions which are more difficult in many ways to achieve. This is the capacity to mitigate the high consequence, low likelihood events or the creeping disaster before a crisis is experienced. The US behaved admirably in responding to the 9/11 terrorist disaster after it had occurred, but as the 9/11 Commission Report notes, terrorists had attempted on numerous occasions to bring down the World Trade Center and come quite close to succeeding.

In this thought may be one of the best argument for blue sky research. Serendipity – wondering through the universe with your eyes open to observe what’s happening around you, rather than head down and focussed only on one task – is this the secret to innovation?

How does nature do resilience ?

Life becomes resilient in that it is replicated wildly so that many copies exist, so that if some number fail, life can continue. Individual creatures carry DNA, which is all that needs to be replicated. Those creatures compete with each other and the environment to become more and more efficient. An individual creature may or may not be resilient, but the DNA is almost immortal.

How an organisation achieves this is the challenge that every management team needs to address. Over the next posts I will expand more

😉

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“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”

The quote above has been often misattributed to Charles Darwin. But according to the Darwin project, it is actually a quote from Leon Megginson* in the 1960s paraphrasing Darwin in a management journal.

Now that I have done my bit to put that meme to bed, it is worth considering whether there is value in the concept or whether it is a dangerous oversimplification. And the answer is…

.. It depends!

You didn’t really think there was a black or white answer to this. The facts, such as we have, are that there are very few companies around today which are in the same form. Indeed, Mark Perry’s in his excellent economics blog Carpe Diem presents a chilling picture comparing the US fortune 500 from 1955 and 2011.

Of the 500 companies on the list in 1955, fewer than one in seven are still on the list in 2012! Only 57 years later. I say only 57 years, because it is less than the lifespan of an average western person.

So what happened to the rest, the other 6 in 7? They have either gone bankrupt, been privatised, merged, or their fortunes have gone south to the point that they are under the Fortune 500.

The parallels between evolution and raw capitalism are hard to resist. Indeed, although this may be a bridge too far, there may even be a parallel between evolutionary eras such as the Cambrian Explosion and the current communications technology fuelled business environment. As such, the life expectancy of companies seems to be getting less as the speed of global communications increases.  Steve Jobs is quoted in Forbes Magazine suggesting “why decline happens” at great companies: “The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues.” So salesmen are put in charge, and product engineers and designers feel demoted: Their efforts are no longer at the white-hot center of the company’s daily life. They “turn off.”

Maybe another way to say this is that all organisations must have purpose, whether that is a government agency or a company. The widgets (for want of a better description) might be policy or law in the case of a government agency; cars in the case of a car company; or services in the case of a services organisation. If the organisation maintains its focus on why it exists, then it can maybe adapt and survive beyond the average – however, this is hard work and most will end up like trilobites, ubiquitous one day, fossils the next.

Alex

Trilobite fossil – Photo by kevinzim – http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/43243889/

*Megginson, L. C. (1964). “Key to Competition is Management.” Petroleum Management, 36(1): 91-95.