We are all looking for and desire to create living systems that are safe, efficient and exciting. The more complex our systems become, the more they engage multiple agents and actors so that shared understanding and adaptive responses by each actor (and the whole System collectively) must increasingly occur within an agreed upon, bounded “space.”

Roger Cook and the Cognitive Technology Lab have pioneered ways to model such space and adaptive responses. A wonderful, short paper on this model is linked here. And, of course, his YouTube stuff is funny and useful.

What I have taken away from his research and several of the CTL published papers is that the survival of any complex, adaptive System depends upon its resilience. They think that “resilience” can be designed into any System. Their model helps reveal how this factor works and promotes success for all actors and stakeholders.

I find that for my little project the most useful application of their model is in recognizing when and why anxiety levels rise in the family and those who I hire to help with my technical fabrication. Until I saw this model with its hard, external boundaries and its soft internal boundaries, I did not have a tool to explain why anxiety levels rise at certain times and what purpose they play in safety and success.

Cooke defines three “hard” boundaries that are necessary for any system to function: 1) the economic boundary which tells you when you are approaching bankruptcy. 2) the workload boundary where the operators are either bored or burned-out. 3) and, the safety boundary where conditions are such that an accident is immanent. In the end these merge into one. They all become about safety. You can see these arbitrary but hard boundaries in my crude drawing.


These three system boundaries can be moved, but not without great effort and expense.

Now inside this bounded space is an operating center (OC), which is represented by a dot that moves in response to pressure from all sides. The auditors are constantly pushing for efficiency to keep the OC away from the bankruptcy boundary. As it nears that boundary, however, the OC drifts away from the danger/accident boundary and closer to the burnout/boredom boundary. Fewer people do more work, etc. The OC location is thus dynamic and responsive to boundary proximity. It’s important that all agents be able to visualize where the OC really is…you want it to be here, but it is actually here. And, it should be there! That’s a true picture of most OC’s.

At some point, especially when budgets are tight and workers need some energy, many innovators inject some excitement into the system by going over the normal danger/accident boundary—“the rules don’t apply to me,” kind of thinking. And quite often we can operate in the danger zone for a time if the consequences are not immediate or the “delay to accident” interval is long. The key example of this phenomenon Cooke mentions is the NASA Challenger mission’s lack of resilience because of extreme budget constraints and the requisite safety compromises, which meant that working outside the safety boundary became normal. Then… boom! The “time to accident” interval was too long to learn from it formally and the informal anxiety/stress among contractors was not registered.

A more familiar example of how an OC operates is in driving a car. If a driver exceeds the speed limit, anxiety rises with the possibility of an accident or a ticket. Anxiety leads to letting off the gas and returning operations inside the boundary of safety. If a driver exceeds the speed limit “normally,” the threat to safety is damped down and irritation on his part rises as anxiety by others in the car gets expressed. It is possible to drive over the speed limit most of the time, but as the delay time, or interval-to-accident extends, the likelihood of a serious wreck rises sharply. In the end it’s not about saving gas money or the excitement of driving fast, but safety. Staying alive!

Resilience is the ability of the actors, especially operators, to establish and express their own private, early-warning boundaries. Long before burn-out or bankruptcy there must be some margin, or a line that, once crossed, actor/s begin to feel anxious and stressed. Signals are sent that a hard boundary is approaching. Budgets and schedules do this. Loss of sleep does this. A speedometer does it too.

The hatched area in the model drawing defines some fuzzy, flexible, personal space near a boundary that one or all actors create and feel. If they are successful in keeping the operational center of their lives and their project system within these inner boundaries of anxiety and stress, they have found the key to resilience.

A boss who ignores (or fails to build in sensitivity to) these private warning signals of anxiety/stress will likely exceed a hard boundary and compromise safety. On the other hand, a boss who hears only anxiety will keep the OC locked in the middle and his staff will be bored and little will get done.

Resilience, therefore, requires operating with both appropriate responses to boundary pressure and with measured sensitivity to internal anxiety and operator stress.

#Resilience #anxiety #adaptivesystems

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