The recent grounding of all flights in the U.S. because of a failure in the Federal Aviation administration’s 30-year-old Notice to Air Missions system (NOTAM) is destined to be a textbook example of non-resilient systems design. FAA investigators reported that a corrupted file that affected the primary and backup NOTAM systems appeared to be the proximate cause of the system’s failure. But the real cause is that the system is not resilient.
A system is resilient if it continues to carry out its mission in the face of adversity (like the corrupted file in this case). The difficulty is that we live in Murphy’s world and there are many factors that can lead to a system failing: external groups attempting to compromise the system (like denial-of-service attacks on public websites), hardware and software errors, or other systems or individuals can introduce flawed data into the system.
Resilient systems are designed to not fail: they self-monitor their various subsystems, attempting to avoid actions that will lead to failure and identifying situations that threaten system operation. This avoidance can include restarting subsystems, flushing data, and backing up to an earlier state.
Put into everyday terms, resilient systems are designed with as many points of failure in mind as possible and organized to withstand adverse circumstances. And, since a system isn’t self-aware, each is a reflection of the thinking of their designers who must consider the adversities the system confronts. Those who build resilient systems are pessimists. But as the FAA NOTAM case — along with the Southwest Airlines calamity a few weeks earlier — being a pessimist isn’t enough: you have to build pessimistic systems, as well.
Organizational resilience is even more complex, since organizations involve the intersection of the human (like social networks, partnerships, governments, markets and customers) and artificial (computer systems, software systems, facilities, and information).
One clue to organizational resilience is the root word for resilience. It’s based on the word salire, which means to jump (while resalire means to jump back).
Unlike systems, the human parts of organizations can be self-aware. And in recent decades we’ve learned that organizations that seek to become more resilient work to incorporate certain capabilities: they create emergent organizations, where decision-making is distributed, groups and individuals have high degrees of autonomy to create and execute plans, they invest in high degrees of learning and well-being, and where leadership — like decision-making — is distributed across the organization.
As in system resilience, resilient organizations continue to carry out their mission in the face of adversity, but along with jumping back they can also jump ahead: they can adapt and improve when confronted with challenges. In this way, those who work to shape resilient organizations are optimistic: they plan for the worst, but they believe they can overcome it, through the capabilities they have developed organizationally.
And as in systems and organizations, individuals can learn resilience. Much of individual resilience is social. We are linked to others — family, friends, and coworkers — in a network of connections, and these people can provide support when we are confronted by challenges, they can provide other perspectives, empathy, and advice. Build those ties.
But just as important as our sense of belonging to a constellation of others — and the immense value we draw from that — is our attitude toward adversity. A great deal has been written about various psychological findings on character and personality with regard to personal resilience. But we are not limited to our psychology: we can learn new skills and practices to increase resilience. We can make every day meaningful with activities that provide a sense of purpose and achievement. Recall the skills and strategies you’ve used to cope with hardship in the past. Put your well being high in your daily regime: exercise, sleep, and healthy eating are critical when stressed. Don’t ignore problems, work out plans to recover from setbacks or loss. These skills, along with a strong social network, mutually reinforce personal resilience.
Resilient individuals — in part through psychology and in part through practice — have greater self-awareness and awareness of the thoughts of those around them, they are more socially connected, and they are more extroverted. But most especially, they are naturally inclined toward the future, and toward hope.
For me, though, starting with hope is the foundation of resilience. As Rebecca Solnit wrote,
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognise uncertainty, you recognise that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.
So those who design resilient systems are pessimists, and those who shape resilient organizations are optimists, but we as individuals must rely on hope, ‘the embrace of the unknown and unknowable’. Resilience is, in the final analysis, to reach beyond certainty to our capacity for hope, and the acceptance of uncertainty as a counter to adversity.