Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Reading :: Resilience

Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back
By Andrew Zolli with Ann Marie Healy

This book will be familiar reading to those who have read similar trade books such as The Tipping Point or The Wisdom of Crowds. We get a set of characteristics, a set of stories illustrating each along with colorful interviews from experts, and a larger story woven through. Writing a book like this is a special skill, I think, and the second author's background as a "playwright, screenwriter, and journalist" positions her well for providing the punch that makes the book read well. Meanwhile, the first author's background as director of PopTech gives him the vision and connections to underpin the book's argument.

That argument, in a nutshell, is that the world is increasingly complex and interconnected, too often through brittle systems that can't handle disruption well. Consequently, we face the prospect of systemic failure, in which small failures cascade and crash the system. In this case, we're talking about large interconnected systems: the environment, the economy, the social order. To resist these shocks, we have to work on resilience.

Resilience is "the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances" (p.7, their italics). In their quest to describe resilience, the authors talk about related concepts such as scaling and swarming (Ch.2), clusters (Ch.3), cooperation (Ch.5), and the new demands of leadership (Ch.8). In the last chapter, Chapter 9, they revive the term "adhocracy" to describe how distributed, resilient organizations work. (It's this term that brought the book onto my radar, although I think the authors don't differentiate enough between the single-organization adhocracy that Mintzberg was describing and the temporary project-oriented adhocracies that the authors are trying to describe.)

The book is highly readable. But I was left wanting more—and I think that has more to do with the genre of the book than the authors themselves. Books of this genre gain their force by skipping from one expert to another, one story to another, like flat rocks sent skipping across the surface of a pond. The skipping is what makes the book interesting to lay readers, but it means that we spend all our time on the surface rather than sinking into the subject and deeply exploring it. So I would recommend Resilience as a way to get a big-picture understanding of the changes and dangers of large-scale systems—but at some point the rock has to stop skipping and you have to sink into a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the issues, and at that point, I would suggest reading up on some of the source materials that the authors have cited, such as Mintzberg and Arquilla.

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