You Cannot Rule Resilience — It’s The Principle of the Thing

We want our efforts to have an impact.  If we invest a lot of effort, we want the impact to last longer.  The impact we want is the result of effort we put into a system: our family, our kid’s school, our church, our work, the local community, a regional initiative, a global change effort.  A sustained impact requires that the system we are putting our efforts into be resilient.

And, life happens. As life happens, things in the system change.  People get older.  New people are born.  People change jobs.  Local perspectives or conditions change.  New politicians are elected.  New products arrive in the market.  As all of these things continuously change, they change the system they interact in.  To sustain the impact of our efforts, the systems we put those efforts into need to be resilient to these changes.  Resilience, in this context, means the ability to adjust to changes (from the Latin resiliens, to jump back), to absorb these changes without collapsing into a qualitatively different form with a different set of processes.

Impact resilience, sustained impact from the co-investment of our efforts, requires that we rethink how we design, lead, and administer our systems. Many of the words we use to describe the design, leadership, and administration of human systems come from the same PIE root *reg- “move in a straight line.”  To rule, to reign, to regulate, and all of their derivatives, such as sovereignty, regimen, regulation, orient our designs, leadership, and administration towards directing in a straight line, towards stability, towards sameness.  And, life happens, which moves  us and the systems we interact in away from sameness and stability.  Impact resilience is about working with the changes, not against them.  The changes will happen, all of the time, in every system, so our efforts are more resilient when we work with the fact of changes.

One way to be more resilient is to shift from thinking about rules to standards and principles.  John Rawls, a moral and political philosopher, highlighted in his book, A Theory of Justice, the differences amongst the terms rules, standards, and principles.

Rules are straight lines, asking yes/no questions, looking for triggering conditions that something is changing, seeking predictability and certainty.  Ex ante, the thinking is that this rule should and will provide this stability.  Put it in place, and let it work.

Standards are balancing feedback systems, with a gap between a stated goal and the actual state driving action that changes the actual state, like a thermostat.  This system looks for balancing factors in a set of relevant considerations and options, providing a range of choices.  Ex post, this thinking asks whether this standard maintained the behavior within a desired range.

Principles are systems to be considered, providing guardrails for the feedback loops–standards–to include, and how the choices made in actions might be interpreted.  In reflection, this thinking asks whether the system of standards and rules under consideration increases resilience of the desired impact.

By working with principles, we are designing the systems we put our efforts into to embrace the changes that will happen continuously, constantly adjusting, asking the questions and considering the choices in actions that can be taken to continue to meet the standards we set.

There is nothing wrong with rules and standards.  Impact resilience comes from organizing our efforts in systems based on principles, where the standards and rules play their part in increasing the ability of the system to jump back, to be resilient to changes.  Low resilience often comes from focusing only on the rules, and not being clear about the implicit standards and guiding principles in the system.

This requires that we rethink all of the terms and processes based primarily on ruling, regulating and reigning, reframing them as principle-based systems that embrace the changes that will happen, because the system is alive.  We want our efforts to have impact, resilient impact: that is the principle of the thing.