Accidents Happen

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Today, a guest post from Terrence Gilbey, a ResFam reader, on the importance of building resiliency and “slack” into highly complex systems. This is important for large organizations, but there are valuable and important lessons for individuals, families and communities as well… As Terrence points out, the key to resilience and self-reliance is not a remote cabin stocked with guns and canned food, but interacting and participating with your community to find local alternatives to complexity.

We are living in a world of such complexity and interconnectedness that even the smallest failure event inside a business can lead to catastrophic results; the effects of which often ripple far beyond one company to impact the lives of individuals and families.  We saw this with BP in the Gulf of Mexico when what, at the time, may have seemed like a calculated cost-cutting measure by BP resulted in a $20 billion, and growing, devastating mistake affecting the daily lives and future of millions of people worldwide.  How does this happen?

I have spent the last six years researching, teaching and consulting on the topic of how to make organizations, and the people inside them, more reliable and resilient.  Much of what I have learned and come to understand about how complex systems operate can also be applied outside of business and used to help make us and our families more reliable and resilient.

It is sad that organizations are inherently unreliable. Things go wrong, accidents happen. In fact, accidents are actually “normal.”  How we deal with those accidents, prepare for them and in some cases avoid or mitigate them when we see them coming, can make the difference in whether we become part of the disaster or instead watch the disaster unfold from a safe distance.

As I have read other blogs on resilience and self-reliance, I have come to a conclusion.  It seems one path to resiliency is found through isolationism. This means building up stocks and supplies to be self-sufficient and ready to “pull up the drawbridge” at any sign of danger, thereby creating a buffer between us and the less prepared, less resilient and less reliable.  Or, on the other hand, we figure out how to adapt and thrive in a fragile ecosystem that is unpredictable, unstable and unreliable. For my family and me, the way forward is clearly the second option.  It may sound trite to say that “no man is an island” and “it takes a village” but I believe it is true. The human spirit cannot survive in isolation, so whatever we can do to be more prepared to live in a world that is unreliable and where accidents happen, the better off we will be.

So what is it that we can learn from the reliability research happening in organizations?  Over the next few postings I’ll tell you, in detail, about a lot of this research: What makes a “Highly Reliable Organization”? The importance of building “Slack” into our lives so that we aren’t caught short; how we can “surf the edge of chaos” without wiping out; and the practical ways we can apply these ideas to our everyday lives.

I already mentioned that accidents are, in fact, normal!  In 1984, Charles Perrow laid out the foundation for what he called “Normal Accident Theory” in his book, “Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies.”  According to Perrow, when you have highly complex and tightly coupled systems it is not a matter of if, but a matter of when the system will fail.  In his words, “Accidents are normal.”  We all know this as “Murphy’s law” or “shit happens” but what Perrow did is look at the reason why “shit happens” and how we can better prepare for it and equip ourselves to not get caught unaware.

Another important factor is “Slack.”  I think everybody has heard about the domino effect.  You line up hundreds of dominoes and by toppling just one you create a chain reaction that is almost impossible to stop and that keeps going until it pushes over all the dominos.  There are even competitions and a world record for domino topples.  Domino topples have no “slack”. Building slack is about building the escape path, the time to survey the landscape and react. Slack is the extra time for that flat tire on the way to airport.

Knowing that “accidents are normal,” the question you should be asking yourself is how and where do you build slack?

About me: I was born and raised in England but have spent the majority of my life traveling and living around the world in the pursuit of military, corporate and personal adventures.  I currently reside in Seattle, Washington, and spend time in Panama, where I am building a small farm.  For the past 20 years I have spent my professional time working in the industries of healthcare, IT, energy, government, and retail, looking at the problems of complex systems and leveraging my life experiences and research to help companies build high-performance teams and sustainable organizations.  While living in the United States, I have come to recognize that we are a nation focused on “quantity of life” over “quality of life” – to me, this is not sustainable or healthy.  In response I am now focusing on how to take the best of what I have learned in the outside corporate world, and apply it in our daily lives.



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One Response to "Accidents Happen"

  1. Paul Norberg says:

    Sounds similar to structural systems. To design “slack” into a building or structure, is to give it the ability to flex in the wind, thereby resisting external forces attempts at toppling it.

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