Research & Design Strategy

Bend, don’t break

May 27, 2020

(Any Day But) Tuesday…


If it was Tuesday, you could guarantee there was no electricity. You couldn’t iron your clothes, watch TV or turn on the lights. You’d do anything to have a portable fan blast air on your face on a crushing summer afternoon, but you couldn’t.

To this day, no one know why Tuesdays were electricity-free in the small coastal town in India where my family is from (full disclosure: I was too young to remember any of this). It mysteriously stopped one (Tues)day, and as is customary in India, nobody bothered to investigate why it stopped. Probably corruption, some uncle would offer, almost out of habit.

What may appear to be a strange and disruptive anomaly to most people was just how it was and people learned to live with it.

As a point of contrast: On Friday, July 19, 2019, a transformer explosion at the local (Madison, WI, USA) power plant caused 13,000 people to be without electricity for several hours on what turned out to be a very hot summer day. Our local response? A state of emergency was declared. Many local businesses shut down. Some government offices closed. Designated cooling stations were set up around town, and at-risk members of the community were transported to libraries and schools to be housed in air-conditioned environs.

The US has more financial resources, is more socially organized, and has clear, formal channels to deal with infrastructural problems. There is also a high level of specialization in people tasked with resolving problems when they do arise. Nothing here intuitively suggests that India has a winning hand compared to the US. But if that’s the case, why did Madison have to declare an emergency on a hot day, when the Indian summer — which in my experience is more humid and uncomfortable than just about any place I’ve been on earth — was seemingly just a minor inconvenience that everyone just adjusted to?

It's a question that I have puzzled over for years, and not just in that context. The essence of the query — why some are seemingly unaffected by change and others are destroyed by it — cuts across many dimensions of life and business, remaining preternaturally relevant in spite of the shifting sands of time.

Why are some people/organizations seemingly unaffected by change and others are destroyed by it?

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As this essay series seeks to demonstrate, the confluence of recent events around Covid-19 as well as research around organizational resilience help to both illustrate and make sense of unexpected change. There are clear avenues to move forward as we prepare for what the future brings, even as the future is unfolding, and not in a way that we can easily predict.


Basic

Admittedly, there are probably several reasons for the India-US disparity I described above, ranging from architectural differences, not to mention the fact that I’m conveniently mashing a contrivance into this article to demonstrate a point. But let’s ignore all that for a minute. The part I’d like to dissect in this thought experiment is the role of America’s first-world infrastructure:

Observation #1: The areas of fragility in a business may be so basic you never thought to (or thought you could) safeguard them.

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At the heart of the analogy is the fact that our utility infrastructure performs so flawlessly that we don’t think about it much. The only time we think about electricity is when we can’t get it. We have so much fresh, potable water that we literally go to the bathroom in it as a primary form of waste disposal. In fact, the water in our toilets goes through the same expensive purification process as the water we drink, making toilet water in the US generally more potable than tap water in India, which often comes out of contaminated wells. This isn’t necessarily a problem; however, under certain circumstances, this reality can create big problems.

On the surface, everything seems great. America doesn’t have to worry about electricity, which means we can focus on churning out those reports our boss told us to have on her desk at 9 am tomorrow, instead of worrying about how it’s too dark to see two inches past our face. We don’t need to hunt for or boil water just for a drink — we can have a refreshing sip right from the tap (or toilet if we so choose). Living the dream, as they say.

Sort of. It’s great when it works — which, to be fair, it does the vast majority most of the time. But what about when it doesn’t, like when a transformer explodes? In those situations, the average person has little recourse but to freak out and raise hell until someone who isn’t them fixes the issue. “So what?” you say, “This has worked out fine historically. New York experienced a three-day blackout in 2003 and yeah, it was weird, but the power came back and life goes on.

OK, but here’s another intrusive question: what do we do if the power goes out for months, or even years? It’s a seemingly remote possibility, but it leads to a troubling thought. In that situation, most of us will continue to have very few options except to wait for power to return, because as individuals and as a society we never prepared for a day when there might be long-term interruptions in services that our entire way of life depends upon. Imagine a nation of 330 million people who simply don’t have a clue what to do next. This analogy, friends, leads us to right here, today:

Fragile Complexity

At this writing, it’s been a little less than three months since Covid-19 ushered us into an unfamiliar landscape of isolation, disrupted supply chains, and widespread layoffs. What has become visible in sharp relief is something that security experts like Bruce Schneier have been saying for a long time now to a public that was largely not in the mood for these dour Chicken Little-like doomsday predictions that didn’t comport with immediate reality. But here it is in black-and-white:

Observation #2: The kinds of complex, integrated systems and resource-dependent processes we possess and cultivate — both as a nation, and within our businesses — don’t necessarily contribute to long-term security. Worse, they can actively disrupt our security.

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Though our intuitions may resist this interpretation, our greatest assets can be our greatest weaknesses when the conditions aren’t right for them to work. The fact that our electricity grid functions remarkably well also means that when it does fail, the results are catastrophic. Its omnipresence has promoted a structure that is highly reliant on its up-time to function. Electricity, like other systems we rely upon, put us at risk precisely because they fail so rarely. We have never planned for their absence, and so are rendered helpless when the conditions necessary for them to function are disrupted.

Why So Fragile?

The aforementioned message is not a reassuring one to hear. You may have realized in reading this that your company has its own variety of infrastructure problems. Many of us in business are finding that we are in a rather precarious and fragile position. This reality seems increasingly apparent now that we’ve been given a few weeks to watch the cascading effect of contagions caused by Covid-19 unfurling across the social and economic landscape.

We may have also realized that there’s nothing unique about Covid-19 in terms of the risks it poses economically or structurally. Imagine for a moment the impact any one of these situations would have on America’s well-being and/or certain companies/industries:

  • The postal service ceases operation
  • Oil and gasoline becomes extremely expensive or difficult to obtain
  • Water becomes scarce (Southern California teeters dangerously near this point already)
  • A computer virus takes down banking systems
  • Climate change or dwindling insect populations cause food shortages across the globe

Just a brief consideration of these possibilities will quickly lead you to the realization that there are many such “unlikely” occurrences that could decimate huge companies or entire industries overnight. Amazon relies on the existence of a postal service. Wal-Mart and Target depend on cheap fuel for their logistics systems to function effectively. It’s impossible to even imagine the chaos that might unfold in the event of a banking meltdown or a global food shortage.

Prior to Covid-19's unwelcome arrival on the scene, most of us had written off the paranoid doomsday preppers on the periphery as ‘crazies.’ How quickly they have come to seem like sage prophets for being the only ones psychologically and physically prepared for the current breakdown in our routine way of life. Most everyone else seems to have been caught off guard, as the frenzied hoarding of toilet paper and panicked lockdown protests demonstrate.

But this essay isn’t intended to be some abstract epiphany about the delicate threads that hold the world together and how you should stockpile baked beans in your basement. It’s to highlight this reality:

Observation #3: Resilience is not about avoiding all risk or calculating for specific shocks. It’s about how we can train ourselves to react to whatever life might throw at us, how well we are able to persevere, and how quickly we can move on. Doing so is a mindset, and benefits from a systemic approach.

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