Resilience: Important Lessons in Complex Times

In HSD, we think about resilience as “capacity to adapt and maintain system functioning in the face of the uncertainty and turbulence of complex change.” In this blog post, Royce explores three important lessons we’ve learned in talking with people about their need for and experiences with resilience in recent times.

“Do not judge me by my success, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” — Nelson Mandela

In the last couple of years, we have been asked to talk about resilience in the context of the complexity of human systems and recent examples of systemic trubulence. We have worked with and talked with people in a variety of roles, parts of the world, and perspectives:

  • Individuals who continue to support healthcare workers as they find a new equilibrium after the ravages of the worst of the pandemic
  • Educators who must continue to set conditions for learning in the face of new challenges, changing expectations, and heightened stressors in today’s world
  • Entrepreneurs who recognized the need to build resilience into their business practices—even before the pandemic
  • Organization development professionals who recognize the need for resilience among their clients across multiple sectors

We talk with people about our view of resilience as capacity to adapt and maintain system functioning in the face of the uncertainty and turbulence of complex change. In every engagement with these bright and curious people, we have continued to learn about that capacity. They have helped us move more deeply into an actionable understanding of resilience. Three observations have emerged for us as important lessons about resilience.  

First, you can never go “back to normal.” Old definitions and metaphors of resilience no longer fit in the current context of highly volatile and complex change. It’s not like a rubber band that pops back to its original shape when the tension is released. It’s not about going back to a world that just doesn’t exist anymore. That’s not possible in a complex system. Complex systems can’t “go back” to previous iterations because each moment holds potential to change the system and cannot be “undone”. Individuals and groups in a complex system can look back and learn. They can look back and yearn. They can even look back and burn about past injustices or wrong turns that seemed to bring them to the current context. People we work with express surprise and frustration about how everything has changed, and they can’t find their ways back.

As we talk with them about our understanding of resilience, we can see their tensions shift.  When they can quit expecting to bounce back to normal, they have space to consider movement forward.

As their current tension dissipates, they turn their attention to questions about what is possible.  

Second, resilience is not just one thing. In complex systems, we watch for patterns to make sense of the world. Often it’s not the big, broad concepts that help us make better choices. Those broader concepts are made up of smaller patterns that we can influence. It’s not enough to say, “I want to be more resilient.”  We each must identify the smaller patterns of interaction and decision making that can inform our actions. To build that capacity, we must be clear about smaller, more specific patterns that build individual and system resilience. In HSD, we talk about a number of patterns that can contribute to resilience. People manage the complexity in their world. They plan and act into the future. Individuals and groups leverage the energy of difference. These and other patterns help set conditions for individuals, families, communities, and organizations to live out this definition of resilience.

Finally, resilience doesn’t just happen.  We talk to people who are tired of being told that all they have to do is “Be more resilient!” They often feel blamed for not being able to deal with turbulence and change. No one seems able to tell them what they need to do to deal with those changes. In complex systems, resilience is more possible when it’s built at all scales. Organizations can’t expect employees to be resilient unless policies, procedures, and practices set conditions for people to live out those patterns that support resilience. Even when policies and procedures frame resilient patterns, people need training and feedback to increase their own capacity. That same kind of system support is needed for communities and families who want their members to be more resilient. If you want to build personal resilience, you have to set similar structures and learning opportunities in your own life.

We invite you into this ongoing learning conversation about resilience. Later this month, on October 18 and 20, 2023, we will host an Adaptive Action Lab entitled Resilience: Build Capacity to Move into Your Future. We will talk about patterns of interaction, decision making, and thought that can build that capacity. And we will talk about HSD models and methods you can use to build resilience in your life. We would love to include you in that conversation. Please join us! To find out more and to register, follow this link. Even if you cannot attend the Adaptive Action Lab, be in touch. Let us hear about your experience of resilience.


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