Resilience is Futile (Adapt and Improvise Instead)

BLOG Resilience is Futile (Adapt and Improvise Instead)

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I‘ve been using the word resilience to describe the capacity — of individuals, communities and organizations — to improvise, to respond well in the moment. But I think resilience is the wrong word — it is from the Latin meaning “springing back”.

Humans try to be resilient, acting as if everything is temporary, or cyclical, and as if it will always eventually possible to go back to the way things were before a challenge arose. That’s why so many of us live in misery, in false hope. While we aspire to move back to the way things once were — after the desertification, after the forests and fish have gone — the rest of all-life-on-Earth is moving on, forward.

What we try to do instead of adapting to the changes in our environment, is to try to change the environment to suit us. We’ve become very good at this, but it’s unsustainable. What we’ve created in human-made environments is fragile, shabby, and ineffective. Much of human employment today is fixing all the human-made things that constantly break, and break down. Much future employment will be cleaning up the mess we’ve created with the human-made, non-biodegradable broken stuff we’ve thrown away.

We try to be resilient, and to force changes in our environment, because, after learning that our cultural “software” can adapt very quickly (in as little as a generation), we discovered too late that our biological “hardware” adapts over millions of years, not decades. Today we’re racked with epidemic rates of diseases of maladaptation — notably immune system diseases, cancers, and mental illnesses. Our bodies just can’t adapt to stress, the malnutrition of the modern processed monoculture food system, and the toxins in our air, water, soils and foods. They’re still designed for life in the uncrowded, abundant and unpolluted rainforest.

Alas, there’s nothing we can do about our bodies, nor is there anything sustainable we can do to our environment. Resilience is, in fact, futile — we cannot expect things to change back to what they were so that we can bounce back to what we were. And in Darwin’s sense we cannot evolve either — at best we can unschool our descendants to acquire the capacities that we lost, or never had — like the ones depicted in the charts above. We’re probably too late, those of us over 30, to learn them all effectively ourselves now.

What we can do, however, is adapt and improvise.

Evolution and adaptation are not about springing back, but rather springing forward. Evolution is from the Latin meaning “rolling out”, but it is worth noting that Darwin avoided the term he is now so associated with, and instead in his books used the term “descent with  modification” (descent in the sense of ‘descendants’ — change only occurred with the passing of genes ‘down’ from one generation to the next). Adaptation comes from the Latin meaning “fitting in” (hence to Darwin “survival of the fittest” was not about strength or intelligence but about adaptability). Improvisation comes from the Latin meaning “[responding to the] unexpected”. These are the only effective responses to change in complex systems.

Wild creatures have this ability to adapt and improvise: to fight, to flee, to change what they eat, where they live, what they do. They migrate, they hibernate, they adapt to different foods, neighbours and environments, as well as changes to members of their own community. Evolution helps them do this, by selectively favouring that capacity — those that can’t adapt and improvise, perish.

So how do we, poor maladaptive and conservative creatures that we are, learn to adapt (“fit in”) and improvise (“respond to the unexpected”), and can we help our communities and organizations do so as well?

Last week I visited with one of the most adaptive and improvisational organizations I know, one that I profile in my book, called Mountain Equipment Co-op. It’s a true one-person-one-vote cooperative, that began with 6 members and which now has millions. Only a tiny proportion actually participate in MEC’s decisions, but it’s enough to know that if they started doing things the members didn’t like, that could change very quickly. They generate only enough ‘profit’ to cushion them through economic downturns — any other surplus is returned as a cash refund to members based on their annual purchases. The people I’ve met like working there, and they really do care about being of service, offering excellent products (made in Canada whenever possible), and doing excellent work.

As I spoke with and visited them it occurred to me that, compared to other, profit-for-shareholders companies that sell sporting goods, MEC is culturally more adaptive and resilient in 18 ways:

  1. Less dependence on growth: they would thrive in a steady-state economy, because there are no external shareholders looking for revenue growth and ‘share appreciation’ (each member gets one voting share, which is always worth $5)
  2. Fewer levels of hierarchy to connect and move: MEC is a very flat organization, so when something needs to be changed, everyone knows and everyone works on it
  3. More distributed decision making: customer-facing workers have the authority to satisfy customers and improve processes without having to go through approval policies
  4. Built-in job/supply redundancy: less efficient but more effective: you never hear “that’s not my department” at MEC; their people know a lot about everything in the store, so if someone’s away there’s someone else who knows what they do, and so people get variety in their work and a chance to learn what others do; and if a supplier fails or is unable to meet demand, there’s another available to take up the slack
  5. Less debt: big corporations take on debt to provide leverage that allows profits to rise faster than revenues (and exposes them to commensurate drops); MEC is not in the business to make profits, so it doesn’t acquire needless debts
  6. More autonomy in decisions: less dependence on outside investors; the members own the company, and no outsiders have a say in what gets done, or doesn’t get done
  7. Less need to create demand: MEC responds to real customer demands, rather than advertising and marketing to create artificial ones
  8. More connected to members/customers/suppliers: you’ll find MEC people on the slopes, on bike excursions, and in campgrounds, where customers show them what they need and they show customers what they have to offer
  9. More connected to community: MEC invests extensively in community activities, because it makes sense to do so; for example, a percentage of sales from bike products go for advocacy for more bicycle lanes and facilities in the cities the company is located in
  10. Less vulnerable to downturns: when sales drop, the refund to members drops, but everything else continues
  11. Less dependent on government largesse: MEC needs no big corporate subsidies or bailouts like the auto makers, the banks, the steel companies, the energy companies, the agribusiness industry, and all the other big, unadaptable, unimprovising profit-for-shareholder giants feeding at the government trough
  12. More diverse people: MEC has one of the youngest and most diverse workforces I’ve seen
  13. More collaborative, less competitive: the people I saw there work in teams and are always talking and consulting with each other
  14. More “safe-fail” innovation: they test a lot of products with small customer groups first, so they can, as Dave Snowden puts it, “safe-fail” instead of having new products be “fail-safe”
  15. More socially responsive and responsible: MEC’s decision to pull its popular bisphenol-A laden polycarbonite Nalgene water bottles off the shelves shook the Canadian government and the industry into reviewing all the toxins in plastic containers; they did it without fanfare, and they did it because the members told them it was the right thing to do
  16. Less vulnerable to disruptive innovations: the company is so close to its members, who have their pulse on what’s happening, what’s new and what’s needed in their industry, they’re unlikely to be caught off guard by competing innovations
  17. More risk-adapting than risk-mitigating: big corporations try to mitigate risks by playing it safe with new products, by selling a wide range of different quality products at different prices, by offshoring etc.; MEC constantly monitors what’s in demand and what isn’t and uses lower more frequent order quantities to adapt to changes, even though this means not taking advantage of volume discounts
  18. Better reputation: the company’s products are not cheap, since they insist on quality, and they are astonishingly candid (their blog confesses that it’s a constant struggle to manufacture in Canada because if manufacturing plants pay generous wages to assemblers and sewers, customers complain that the product prices — and remember these have no profit margin — are unaffordable)

Here are 10 other things that organizations can do to be adaptive and improvisational, that I’ve seen some Natural Enterprises (especially cooperatives) do (I don’t know whether MEC does any of these, but it would be interesting to find out):

  1. Contingency planning: be aware of and assess the risks and sensitivities of the organization, and discuss with everyone what you would do if and when these issues arose
  2. Scenario planning: imagine the longer-term scenarios that the organization might face, and explore strategies that will work under multiple scenarios or which can be implemented as soon as there is evidence an unexpected scenario is beginning to come to pass
  3. Simulations: run computer or “table-top” simulations or organization-wide “practice runs” that can help you imagine and anticipate unexpected occurrences ($200/barrel oil, 10% inflation or 4% deflation, a collapse in the $US), their impact on your customers and employees and hence on your organization, and how you might respond to them
  4. Analyze narrow escapes: the swine flu was, fortunately, not virulent, but studying it can help you understand what would happen if it has been, and what to do if the next one is; what other narrow escapes have you had that you can learn from?
  5. Recruit emotional intelligence: find people who have the ability to live comfortably with ambiguity and anxiety, and who know how to achieve consensus and resolve conflicts amicably
  6. Study nature’s improvisational ability: have someone in your organization who understands how natural ecosystems work and how to use biomimicry to advantage in your organization
  7. Stay ahead of the curve: understand and constantly reassess what differentiates you from other organizations in your industry; never stop innovating your processes, products and tools
  8. Self-manage: encourage everyone in the organization to self-assess their “sweet spot” (what they do well for the organization that they love doing and which meets a need they care about), their intentions, and their own performance and success on their own terms, and share that candidly with others
  9. Early-warning pattern-recognition: encourage your people to be constantly thinking about “what might come next”, and what the early indicators of each major change might be; track those early indicators 
  10. Manage “on principle”: since decisions aren’t made on the basis of “maximizing shareholder value”, what are the principles that guide you instead when you have to make quick decisions in response to changing circumstances?

So much for organizations wanting to be adaptable and improvisational. What about communities and individuals?

Communities (small towns, villages, intentional communities and neighbourhoods within cities) are a form of co-operative organization, the only difference being that they have a wider and more essential set of products and services, and have members instead of customers. But many the same principles of adaptation and improvision apply: autonomy, steady-state, diversity, built-in redundancy, non-indebtedness, collaboration, non-hierarchical connection, risk awareness, self-management “on principle”, emotional intelligence, biomimicry, contingency planning (including scenarios and simulations), candour and responsiveness. The town I live in tries hard, but they’re zero for fourteen on these measures.

Individuals are of course part of communities and organizations, but there are also some things we can each do as individuals to be more adaptive and improvisational in our lives: be autonomous (not dependent on those outside your community), live within your means (a life of sufficiency and comfort, not one dependent on tomorrow’s income being more than today’s), get debt-free, self-manage, build emotional intelligence and other personal capacity, collaborate, plan for contingencies, always be honest, stay healthy, be good to yourself, and be open, attentive and responsive.

Whew. That’s enough lists for a lifetime.

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4 Responses to Resilience is Futile (Adapt and Improvise Instead)

  1. the title got me as my work on Transition is about reaching a more resilient way of organizing our communities:) and hearing it is futile my world crumbles.If resilience is springing back to the state before a crisis occurred then I’d like to live in a community which can weather an occasional crisis like a Super Volcano eruption and continue to develop. The problem might be one this community generates its own crisis because of exactly the way it is functioning and continues to do it again and again until it collapses and only dust settles. No adaptation and improvisation here.I like what you wrote about the resilient culture and adaptivity of the Coop showing the importance of feedback and learning. Feedback to avoid generating disruptive crisis, feedback to adapt to one which is unraveling, feedback and openness to change to pick oneself up.Thanks for the material to think about and keep them coming.

  2. Randall Ross says:

    Hi Dave, Great article. If you’re (still) in the YVR area please shoot me a note.

  3. Eventually someone found clear words to underline the difficulty of resilience, a concept of stagnation projected onto dynamic and necessarily adaptive systems. It’s a wonderful concept, though often interpreted in dangerous ways. You pointed that out very well. Thank you!

  4. cahya says:

    What an interesting article.

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