The term ‘resilience’ is thrown around quite a lot lately. Whether it be in our personal or professional lives, we all know that being resilient is crucial to both survival and success. But what does resilience really mean? In network science, resilience is the ability of a system to withstand perturbations from its environment. In plain English, that basically means to roll with the punches. What does that look like at the firm level — for strategists, teams, and organizational leaders? What knowledge can we apply from network behaviors toward building more resilient, sustainable communities?
“In nature, the systems most likely to survive are the ones that can adapt to diverse environmental circumstances. Often that means being able to change as demands from the environment become ever more complex.”
Dr. John Izzo is an employee engagement expert, the author of six books including Stepping Up, and a network science enthusiast who applies his knowledge of complex systems to helping organizations such as NASA, IBM, and Microsoft navigate complex challenges and transitions. According to Dr. Izzo, one of the best ways to understand resilience on an individual and community level is to look closely at nature. In nature, the systems most likely to survive are the ones that can adapt to diverse environmental circumstances. Often that means being able to change as demands from the environment become ever more complex.
With his clients, Dr. Izzo uses his understanding of resilience in nature to inform strategies for change management, innovation and conflict resolution. What makes a business flourish in the Age of Networks?
“Nature shows us that diversity is the best way to be resilient.”
Here are some of the insights he shared in our conversation:
Incorporate diverse perspectives to harness the collective wisdom of networks.
Nature shows us that diversity is the best way to be resilient. A simple example is that if you have a field of crops with only one plant — a monoculture — it will be less resilient than if you had many crops because it is more susceptible to cascading failure due to drought or disease. In more diverse environments, if one crop fails, another can still succeed. This same principle plays out in organizations that are dealing with complex challenges and social dynamics.
For quite a long time, it was the predominant belief that groups were less intelligent than the smartest individual. But almost all of that research was conducted using problems that had one right answer. In a stable, determinant system, you don’t really need to consider the diversity of network dynamics to make decisions, because you can simulate a linear future based on what’s happened in the past. The moment you study complex problems that required creativity and innovation, though, the opposite happens: Suddenly the group is incredibly brighter than the single individual. This is one reason why networks, just like in nature, are so important. In most organizations today, decision-making is aided by networks of diverse stakeholders. Just like nature is more resilient when organisms interact, when people have diverse interactions and perspectives, they are more likely to find mutations (emergent solutions) that will build resilience to their environment and whatever faces them. It’s the oldest adaptive mechanism we have.
Embody a ‘not-knowing’ mind.
“Thinking you know everything is dangerous because you will fence out other ideas and possibilities.”
To be creative, you have to be lost at some point. When I work with organizations I often say there are really only two types of people and two types of organizations: there are learners and there are know-it-alls. Thinking you know everything is dangerous because you will fence out other ideas and possibilities. Most great innovations started as one idea that was built on another. Most people don’t make that connection. Why do we have so much innovation today compared with, say, even 50 years ago? Because there are three times as many people who are now connected to each other.
“A successful business is one that is able to return value to all of its stakeholders: its owners, employees, customers, community, and ultimately the world.”
In Zen, they talk about the mind of not-knowing — to be willing to not know, to say “I’m not sure, let’s explore more.” This is the key to creativity, not only in business but in life. One of the most dangerous ways to choose a career is to decide when you’re 15 what you want to do in life, long before you’ve ever tried or experimented with anything else. Some people wake up with a fire in their belly when they’re 15 or even 10, and they know their purpose in life. But for most people, it’s a good thing to get lost. Even in your career. Even in a relationship. We date a lot of people early in our life if we want to find a good mate. Kiss a few frogs and after a while, you begin to understand what’s good for you.
Build with values as your framework.
One of the great dysfunctions in business is this intense focus on profitability as an end to itself. Profit is merely an outgrowth of other things we do well. Those organizations that focus intently on profit as their main goal often wind up failing because they fail to see that these other things are the real building blocks.
A successful business is one that is able to return value to all of its stakeholders: its owners, employees, customers, community, and ultimately the world. I think that increasingly, employees, investors and customers — and governments to a lesser degree — will demand that of businesses. One of the things that excites me the most is young entrepreneurs, because I see that for so many of them, the idea of creating that value is cemented from the very beginning. It’s a very optimistic trend that we also see also in a lot of big companies such as 3M. They want their business to be rooted in making a difference in society, and they are eager to collaborate across their networks, entertaining diverse perspectives and thus planting the seeds for innovation.
Embrace (and assist) self-organization.
The ice caps melt. What happens next? The water goes into the ocean, the temperature drops, the conveyor belts of currents stops causing changes in the climate in some areas; then the ice reflects the heat back into space and warms our atmosphere. These are simple examples of the way problems tend to accelerate in a complex system, and where linear thinking gets in the way. And the same thing happens in organizations. Instability can start with one little disruption, but in a system as complex as a human life or an organization, things can go haywire suddenly.
Think about the internet as the image of our age: It has no center, it doesn’t exist in any one place in real time, it’s a group of machines run by humans connected virtually to each other. And somehow the average human being like myself doesn’t completely know how it works. So we can’t ‘manage’ it in the traditional sense. But we can assist it by understanding how its interactions create patterns of order.
In complex networks where there is no centralized control, cooperation between the agents is what creates order. Human beings are a cooperative species, but we evolved in very local areas where success merely depended on cooperating with our tribe. Now there is really no tribe anymore. A business can’t succeed if the society it’s in doesn’t succeed. One country can’t succeed if the rest of the world is in poverty because inequality fosters all kinds of instability — nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and ultimately result in environmental refugees. So I think one of the beautiful things about the age we’re in is that it demands networks and a tolerance for self-organization.
That’s why Paul Hawken, who’s an acquaintance of mine, wrote a book called Blessed Unrest a few years ago. He said, “The only thing that can save human beings is this movement without a leader that’s happening all over the world.” It’s a self-organizing movement for a more humane, equitable, fair, cooperative, sustainable society. That blessed unrest is the activity of a network that doesn’t have a center.
So we should try to think bigger about our networks than we have before. Who are all of our partners? I was working with a big pipeline company, and one of the senior people said, “It never occurred to me that the community is a stakeholder.” The funny thing is, he wasn’t saying it never occurred to the organization that they should care about the community. What he meant was, it never occurred to them in the past that they would have to win the community to build a pipeline; they just thought they had to win the government over. In a networked world, there are more stakeholders.
“A business can’t succeed if the society it’s in doesn’t succeed.”
Create a ‘ripple of responsibility.’
A leader is anyone who influences someone in a positive way, in that they will want in turn to influence others in a positive way. What we don’t often understand is the scale of this truth and our own responsibility to be stewards of our networks.
This ripple begins with us as individuals. Thoughts and words are the powerful beginning of a chain that defines how we live. Network science shows us that we can either become a victim of self-reinforcing behavior (like the financial crisis), or we can understand how it works and design more beneficial interactions. To me, cooperation is the greatest challenge we face. We’ve lived in an ‘Or’ world, and now we have to move to an ‘And’ world.
This is the defining moment of humanity. If we get through this window successfully, I believe our evolutionary prospects are quite bright. We could be the ones who keep this experiment going.
Dr. John Izzo is the author of six bestselling books, including Stepping Up and Awakening the Corporate Soul. He has advised over 500 companies on creating sustainable, socially responsible businesses that can adapt to change.