I have been discussing the relative impact of long-term Executive tenure on resilience with Charley Newnham on her blog. My issue was that I did not see that one caused the other. You can read the discussion here, but the conversation brought to mind a story one of my Sociology lecturers often used to illustrate a similar point.
He described two areas that demonstrated a strong statistical correlation, sales of Ice Cream and Crime rates in New York City. When Ice Cream sales went up, so did crime rates. One could draw conclusions from this about how to deal with problems of crime. Obvious policy answer may be to ban ice cream, or perhaps put a ceiling on sales volumes.
Of course this is a false correlation, there is another variable that intervenes. In this case it is climate, when the temperature rises both the other indicators increased. There is no causal link between the sales of ice cream and crime levels.
I started to think about other areas where we may make false causal links, perhaps even when we misunderstand complex systems and how they are observed in case studies.
What if we have not correctly understood the links between process and outcomes applied to the concept of resilience?
One of the best references to explore this is a paper entitled “The Price of Resilience”, which is referenced at the bottom of this post. The paper is subtitled “Contrasting the theoretical ideal-type with organizational reality”, and it poses this question about the causal links between process and outcomes in the popular literature on resilience.
The paper looks at three case studies of organizations that are perceived to be resilient, in that they have faced significant levels of adversity and maintained their operations. I am going to present these cases in a different order to the original paper.
A Dutch mobile phone company is one case study. They start to suffer reliability problems and it becomes an operational problem to deal with. It is suggested that the problems stems from strategic drivers, time to market and cost reductions – which manifest themselves in reduced testing and more complex interactions on their network.
They continue to operate through this turbulence, albeit with reduced reliability, due to heroic effort from their operational staff. This is a similar story to their second case study, the Californian Electricity Grid operator.
This case arises from the restructure of the industry and the subsequent electricity crisis of 2001. The seeds of the crisis were in part due to design problems in the new, partly deregulated, electricity system.
Again operators manage to keep the system running much of the time. The authors present a typology of different operational modes when staff are presented with “uncontrollable change or unpredictable conditions” on one hand, and limited resources or strategies to respond on the other hand. (p170) The mode for high volatility and low response option is labelled “Just-for-now” operations.
This mode is described as having “maximum potential for ‘deviance amplification’.” It is essentially a firefighting mode of operation, but one in which the operators are not confident of the outcome and is better described as being lucky rather than demonstrating resilience.
In this environment “good luck is the non occurrence of failure in the absence of exercising failure-avoidance options …”. Remembering that they are operating in an environment where they may have no, or limited, options to avoid failure.
The third case study relates to three different water- management utilities and how they are challenged to integrate environmental problems into the supply and demand of an operational water utility. In this case the already complex operating environment has a number of additional constraints applied.
Staff are reported to feel “uncomfortable, insecure and frustrated about their performance” in an environment that seems to meet the classic definitions of resilience. Essentially they are in an environment where they are challenged to address potentially wicked problems, without the ability for any trial and error learning.
In an attempt to promote reliability the system has been overly constrained – “there is no solution that allows workers to meet the competing objectives.”(p161). Someone has to give and relax a constraint.
This case also talks about the “constant, nearly obsessive focus on the short-term”, which is also evident in the “Just-for-now” situation.
It was this short-term focus that also triggered the connection between this and the discussion on Charley’s blog.
The authors note that we need to define resilience in terms of process and outcomes, and that we also need to study how these processes actual relate to the outcomes.
“If assumed process characteristics have little or nothing to do with the desired outcome, this will have serious consequences for the prescriptions of resilience that have become so popular.”
We have all read case studies based on the fact that a company survives adversity, therefore they are a good practice guide to resilience. From this somebody has distilled a bunch of attributes or practices that they believe contributed to that resilience. But what if they were just lucky?
There is also a growing trend to promote generic ‘management systems’ and standardised processes for everything – including building and maintaining resilience.
Do you expect that you can adopt a practice from a case study and expect it will produce the same outcome in your organization?
Do you think we are too focussed on companies that get simply survive an ordeal, without critically assessing their real resilience?
Is ‘luck’ perhaps more common than real resilience?
This also raises the question of the difference between Strategic and Operational resilience, but that subject can wait for another day.
van Eeton,M., Boin, B and de Bruijne, M;,”The Price of Resilience” Contrasting the theoretical ideal-type with organisational reality.
in Comfort, Boin and Demchak (eds) Designing Resilience. Preparing for Extreme Events