I wrote here recently about the need for resilience in challenging times. I went on to explore this theme in more depth in my newsletter, where I suggested that our drive for greater organisational efficiency has come at the expense of our ability to ‘bounce back’ from adverse circumstances and events. We need to swing the pendulum back the other way.
I’ve used previously the example of just-in-time supermarket deliveries, where the merest jolt to the supply chain results in shortages on the shelves. But there are further examples pretty much everywhere we look, from ambulances queueing up outside hospital emergency departments to the inability of major airports to cope with passenger flows.
These are examples of closely-coupled systems, where each element of the system is reliant on carefully-calibrated inputs from the preceding element. They are also complex systems, because rather than having a simple linear ‘flow’ from inputs to outputs, they are made up of a complicated web-like network of closely-interacting inputs, processes, outputs and information flows.
Complex systems like these are not bad in themselves. They enable us to do amazing things. But the more complex and the more closely-coupled they become, the more they come to rely on things working perfectly all the time. When things cease to work perfectly, as they tend to do in the real world, y’know, all the time, we have a problem.
When a loosely-coupled system experiences a shock, it acts like a bungee cord: it stretches and contracts to absorb the shock without any long-lasting effect. When a closely-coupled system experiences a shock, it acts like a glass rod. It hold things together for as long as it can. And then it breaks. And once one part of the system has broken, it’s not long until other parts start to show the strain.
So what do we do about it? It’s easy enough to diagnose the problem, but finding a solution is less straightforward. I’d suggest we start by training ourselves to recognise complex and closely-coupled systems when we see them. We’re not very good at this, collectively, because we think linearly and because we think something’s a system when, in fact, it’s merely a part of a much larger system.
We also need to start loosening the coupling between elements of complex systems, so that they’re more resilient to shocks. This means building in redundancy and spare capacity, so that the system can stretch when it encounters a shock, rather than break. This will be a hard sell, because we’ve been told for so long that efficiency is everything and that spare capacity is wasteful. But that’s simply not true. And we’re now starting to understand why.