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Benefits of Resilience

Resiliency is not a widespread watchword for the 21st century, perhaps because many businesses and people are still in denial about the new normal. But, it ought to be. According to Andrew Zolli, author of “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back,” adapting to new normals (plural!) is something we need to get used to. The world is a dynamic system (and always has been). To succeed as an individual, a business or nation means improving “your ability to resist being pushed from your preferred” state of affairs “while expanding the range of alternatives that you can embrace if you need to.” Resilience, as Zolli uses it, is borrowed from ecology and sociology. It is “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances,” assuming, of course, that any of us can really divine our core purpose.

In the face of the dramatically changed circumstances many of us have undergone over the past decade, we could use some guidelines on what it takes to bounce back. In simplified terms, it means having your ideal plan and a bunch of alternatives that you can easily adapt to if needed. It’s what organisms do all the time – the ones that survive, that is. Using feedback mechanisms, they read signs in their environment that changes are taking place, and then they react. This feedback system is a bit like ordering a martini at Monsoons (dry, two olives) and having Allie set you up with a second without being asked. Resilience, according to Zolli, “is a common characteristic of dynamic systems over time, and life on Earth is the most dynamic and persistent system anyone has ever encountered.”

But it’s more than that.

What is unique about Zolli’s message is that it is often against the common grain. We all know that the old system (every man and woman for themselves in pursuit of the bottom line) isn’t going to work anymore. But do we really believe that institutionalized group hugs will really save the day? For his part, Zolli eschews “’Kumbayah’ naturalism” as a strategy for business or life.

What is unique about Zolli’s message is that he suggests we get used to failure. “Regular, modest failures are actually essential to many forms of resilience,” he writes, because they allow a system to release its resources and then reorganize them more optimally. His example, familiar to anyone within sniffing distance of a Ponderosa pine, is forest fires. Within the natural cyclical processes of the ecosystem, moderate fires strengthen the resilience of the forest.

His other advice is to cluster. That’s right. Forget the idea that you can do this alone with a bandwidth of 100 Mbps. Zolli notes that concentrations of “not just people but ideas, skills, and industries” contributes to growth and resilience. The fact that more people live in cities than at any time in the past actually contributes to our ability to bounce back from crisis. Contrary to common belief, “when you double the size of the city, you produce, on average 15 percent higher wages, 15 percent more fancy restaurants.” But before you load up the U-Haul and make your way to Phoenix, it also means “15 percent more AIDS cases, and 15 percent more violent crime.”  So, what’s the benefit? Consider that increasing the size of the city also increases the amount of innovation… so, maybe it’s not a bad trade.

Beyond density, cities supply another vital ingredient to the resiliency mix: diversity. According to Zolli, however, it is diversity coupled with balance. Many systems (such as a business concern) try to increase efficiency by strengthening what they think they do best. Counterintuitively, such an action can actually lead to disaster. It goes back to the idea of an ecosystem. Get rid of the javelinas and suddenly the population of snakes is out of control. Get rid of the underperforming department and you might find out that it was an integral part of your top performer’s success (hint to those who think science, technology, engineering, and math are all a society needs).

The bottom line is, keep your eye on the ball and make sure it bounces back. FBN

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