Too Much Resilience?

Can you have too much resilience?  It seems to depend on how you define your system.

To have energy resilience, in the form of calories available for your body, you need more calories available to you than you use.  That is the definition of resilience–the ability to continue to function when the environment changes.  You need to have enough calories available to burn in activities, given whatever activities that changes in the environment will require of you.  You can store those available calories inside or outside your body.  Inside your body, calories are basically stored as body fat.  To be more inside-body calorie-resilient, you need more body fat.  And, too much body fat, when you are out of calorie-balance, impedes proper body functions and leads to many diseases.  You can also store calories outside your body, in access to food.  To be more outside-body calorie-resilient, you need more access to food.  Since food goes bad quickly, you need access to continuously-replenishable food sources.  We do this by spending more time on getting food, having more people work on getting food, or by having more preserved food available.  It takes energy, the burning of calories, to increase calorie-resilience, whether we store the energy inside or outside our bodies.  And this increased use of calorie-energy for accessing the calories leads to the requirement for even more access to calories.

To have energy resilience, in the form of creativity available to do work, you need more human creative energy available to you than you use.  I am currently working on a model of human creative energy, which I call Homo lumens, where humans are beings of light energy, which comes straight from physics.  One challenge with energy resilience in human creativity is that the creative energy seems to dissipate very quickly.  We seem to have a creative moment, whether thinking of new possibilities, answering a question, or seeing how to apply a screwdriver to a screw.  They all take an instant of human creativity, of lumens.  To be resilient, we need to have enough lumens being generated to use in all of the required applications.  If this creative energy dissipates quickly, then essentially all of the lumens energy generated goes either into a specific activity or it is dissipated, used in some other way.  Following this logic, having more creative energy generated than is engaged in specific activities leads to more creative energy being dissipated.  This is inefficient.  Putting more energy into the system with the same output is less efficient, a waste of creative energy.  This probably leads to burnout, to people being disengaged or otherwise-engaged.

Energy resilience, whether in calories or lumens, seems to lead to a question of resilience versus efficiency.  Since both calories and lumens dissipate relatively quickly, we need to have constant access to them.  The activity of accessing them requires even more access to energy sources.  Having access to more than we need becomes inefficient.  We spend energy accessing energy that will dissipate before we can use it–wasted food, wasted creativity.  Not very smart.  Not having access to enough leads to low resilience, the inability to continue to function when the environment changes.  Not very smart either.  This suggests that to be smart, we have to figure out how to increase our access to energy, whether calories or lumens, without increasing the energy used to access it or losing lots of energy to dissipation.  One way to do that is by increasing the ability to access and tangibilize the potential energy available, without expending much more energy.  Until we need the energy, it remains in its potential form.  When we need it, we tangibilize it.  I explore how to do this, through our agreements fields, in a previous post.


Weak and Strong Agreements Fields

Agreements Fields.  Fields are systems where people interact, where there is a coherence that holds those interactions together.  An agreements field then is the coherent capacity of interactions to tangibilize the potential energy available in those interactions.  Experience seems to show that people experience weak agreements fields and strong agreements fields, which is supported by Agreements Health Check survey responses from 124 countries.

Weak Agreements Fields. When agreements fields are weak, we experience little capacity to making something with the available potential energy.  Though we might see the potential in individuals and in the group, our agreements make it hard to work with that potential: we tend to focus more on getting the required outcomes, and much less on developing capacities and relationships or on seeing and engaging potential.  To be responsible to the resilience of the group’s efforts, in weak agreements fields, we tend to try to increase resilience by increasing the flexibility of our capacity to get people to do work–our resource of human bodies.  From this perspective, we need to be able to scale up and down the number of human bodies available to do work.  When we need more output, we contract more bodies, and when we need less output, we contract fewer bodies.  We can do this more efficiently by contracting that pool of labor–bodies to do work–and keeping investment in their training and benefits low.  This leads us to focus on having flexible financial capital to be able to scale the number of contracted bodies available.  Does the liquidity of this flexibility of capital reduce the return on investment, since it needs to be more readily available?

Strong Agreements Fields. When agreements fields are strong, we experience a high capacity to tangibilize the potential energy available in our interactions, by definition.  We see potential, pathways to manifest that potential, and we use the outcomes of those pathways as feedback about the potential and pathways we saw.  In strong agreements fields, we seem to increase resilience by increasing the capacity of our interactions to leverage our inputs, by working with the reenforcing and balancing feedback loops in our interactions and in the viral nature of our social networks.  We study our interactions to find leverage through the nature of social systems.  This allows us to scale efficiency, achieving much greater outputs with the same inputs, the same number of people with the same level of financial capital.  By keeping the same people, we want to invest in their capacities and their benefits.  This leads us to focus on being more strategic, more systemic, and more collaborative, as a way to engage and learn from the potential energy available to us in the strong agreements field.

If agreements fields have within them the capacity to tangibilize the potential energy available in the individuals present and in their interactions, strong agreements fields seem to engage our intention and our attention–what we do for what reasons and what we focus on–in very different ways than do weak agreements fields.  I am curious what you find in these two different settings.

Why We Care About the Resilience of Our Agreements — What We Lose When Our Agreements Collapse

Everyone lives in complex, turbulent times.  Will our agreements survive the changes we face?  How resilient are these agreements?  We can look to ecologists for how to think about the resilience of systems and to anthropologists for what has actually happened in human systems.

From earlier work by the ecologist C.S. Holling and colleagues, as described by the Resilience Alliance, “When resilience is enhanced, a system is more likely to tolerate disturbance events without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes.”  From an ecosynomic perspective, this means that resilience is the ability to keep a similar level of agreements, meaning the levels of perceived reality they consciously include.  A collapse is then a qualitative shift in the level of agreements.

Anthropologists, like Joseph Tainter, have looked at societal collapse, finding, “The process of a matter of rapid, substantial decline in an established level of complexity. A society that has collapsed is suddenly smaller, less differentiated and heterogeneous, and characterized by fewer specialized parts; it displays less social differentiation; and it is able to exercise less control over the behavior of its members . It is able at the same time to command smaller surpluses, to offer fewer benefits and inducements to membership; and it is less capable of providing subsistence and defensive security for a regional population” (Tainter, 1988 pp. 38).  An example of a loss of a level of complexity might be the loss of consciously accepted agreements at the level of the development of capacities and relationships–the verb level–to focus solely on the level of outcomes–the noun level.

Thus, ecologists and anthropologists observe that a more resilient set of agreements is more capable of dealing with changing environments without losing whole levels of complexity in the agreements.  You can find more on the ecosynomics of impact resilience here.


How Many Voices Can You Perceive at a Time? — the “Cocktail Party Effect”

Recent research shows that where most of us hear noise, the din of a lot of people speaking at once, some people, in this case musicians, can pick out a single voice and the overall harmonic.  Researchers call this the “cocktail party effect,” where lots of people are speaking loudly at the same time, making it hard to hear anything.  That most of us cannot pick out what one voice is saying in the noise of a lot of loud conversation doesn’t mean that nobody can.  Maybe it is a matter of intention and training; the desire to hear different voices and the practice at doing so.  In this case, the musicians need to be able to pick out specific voices or instruments in the mix, and they have a lot of practice doing so.  Intention and practice.

Similarly, Professor Ellen Langer finds that more mindful people are able to notice new perspectives, that someone else brings a different perspective.  In the noise of a conversation, one can perceive that somebody else has a unique perspective to contribute.  And, one can get better at doing this over time.  Intention and practice.

My colleagues and I work with many groups that are taking on very complex social issues.  To address these complex issues, in a resilient way, collaborative processes often require many stakeholder groups to contribute their unique gifts and perspectives.  They are part of the problem and part of the solution, so they need to be involved.  And, they bring quite different perspectives, by definition, of the issue and what they can contribute to the shared intention.  Like with the “cocktail party effect” research with musicians, I find that while most people find it difficult to perceive and value different perspectives in complex social issues, some people can do this.  They have the intention and the practice.  Our ecosynomic processes for working with complex social issues support people in building the capacity to do this, both the intention and the practice–learning how to listen for other unique voices and the practice in doing so.  I see that this is a required skill for addressing complex social issues, a skill we can learn from the example of the musicians.