Resilience, Resistance, and Recovery

Resilience, Resistance, and Recovery

January 22

“We are living in the era where volatility and disruption are the new normal, and they’re going to be with us for the foreseeable future,” says Andrew Zolli, executive director of the Pop-Tech conferences and coauthor of Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back, in an interview with Wired[i]magazine.

In the interview, Zolli focuses on the concept of resilience and what that idea means in various fields.  He explains that in ecology a system is resilient if it’s able to resist being pushed past a critical threshold (in other words, when various pressures lead to abrupt changes in an ecosystem). In business, it means continuity, but for him it means the ability of a person or system to persist, recover, or even thrive amid disruption.

Zolli’s definition of resilience is very similar to what we mean when we say “disaster resistance.” The term measures your resilience and level of adaptability in an ever changing world of chaos. If volatility and disruption are the new normal, we need to prepare for them.

One way to do this, Zolli explains, is to ensure that your systems fail gracefully and that an entire system doesn’t go down because of one point of failure. The more interdependence your systems have, the more likely it is that the whole system will shut down when one thing goes wrong. The various aspects of a system should be adaptable and, on a certain level, independent. The things that do fail should be resilient enough to get back on track quickly.

A good example comes from my experience as an excavator, where one of my duties was to install fire lines and fire hydrants. I’d always figured that when a fire hydrant broke, it shot water up into the air soaking everything around it. It does in movies, right? I quickly learned that it doesn’t happen in real life.

Fire hydrants are designed for failure. At the bottom of the hydrant (the part that is buried), there’s a weaker portion that will break if something hits it. The hydrant breaks above the valve that controls the water flow so that a broken fire hydrant literally can’t spray water everywhere. It’s a failsafe to ensure that fixing a fire hydrant that gets hit and broken is relatively easy.

If hydrants were designed the way Hollywood seems to think they are, crews would have to wallow in thousands of gallons of water until they disable the main fire line, which would subsequently shut off the firefighting systems of any buildings connected to that line. That would be bad.

The fact that a hydrant is built to fail is what Zolli means by resilience. The individual fire hydrant can break without disrupting the main fire line so that service isn’t interrupted for anything but the broken hydrant. This is a useful way to look at your own infrastructure.

The fact that connected computer systems are called “networks” implies that there are various levels of interdependence, but remember, you shouldn’t go down from one point of failure. You need to have a plan for each particular piece of equipment that might fail, and once of you’ve determined what hardware redundancies you need, you’ve still got to worry about infrastructure services like power and internet access.

As Zolli explains, many buildings in Manhatten were dark and flooded when Hurricane Sandy came through because they weren’t built with adaptability in mind. It’s important to consider infrastructure resilience in addition to your business’s computer systems. You can’t always rely on infrastructure services in an emergency. That’s where independence comes in. You’ve got to be flexible, adaptable, and independent if you expect to recover in an emergency. The best way to do this is to make sure you have what you need to get back online on your own, without needing to rely on primary sources of power and internet, which you can do with things like power generators and 4G internet access.

Everything depends on something, but whether or not your backup and disaster recovery plan works really depends on you. It’s crucial that you prepare for both internal system interruptions as well as infrastructure failure. Analyzing various interdependencies is the only way to be fully resilient and truly disaster resistant.


[i] Capps, Robert. “Bounce Back.” Wired Magazine Jan 2013: P.22