Resilience thinking – key to transformation

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This blog originally posted on the Community & Regional Resilience Institute.


“We haven’t yet exceeded our capacity for imagining what we’re going to become.”

– Tom Greene, President, Vermont College of Fine Arts

In our changing world, we are seemingly bombarded with messages that we need to “think resiliently.” Resilience thinking is the first step to making [ourselves, our communities, our nation] better able to cope with change.” And then the sermonizer continues by telling us what “better able to cope with change” means to him or her.  Left unsaid is just what resilience thinking itself is.

I must admit I’ve been guilty of sermonizing myself (Oh, really?). And while I won’t speak for others (some of whom might be bigger than I am) I see resilience thinking as systems thinking guided by a confident mindset focused on change and fueled by a commitment to transformation. Or, playing off the quote above, developing a realistic vision of what we can become and then plotting the path to make the vision a reality.

Resilience thinking has to start with a commitment to make ourselves and our communities as resilient as they can be. We all know thinking is hard work; resilience thinking is even harder.  We have to be committed to developing a realistic vision. For our vision to be realistic, we must understand our environment – the social, economic and infrastructure of our community and our region. We must understand what’s possible in the world we live in, and then we must visualize an attainable future.  Commitment is required if we are to make it through that sustained and intensive effort.

Resilience thinking also requires a particular mindset. It is built on self-confidence – a belief born of experience that our achievements are limited only by the laws of man and nature. Self-confidence brings with it a willingness to look at new ideas and to try new ways of doing business. Our self-confidence also brings with it a certain courage – the ability to look at the world as it really is, not as we think it should be. This self-confidence and courage is then leavened with an understanding that change is inevitable, but suffering isn’t, and that within any change there are opportunities to be found that can be transformative.

And this focus on change has to concentrate on all of the potential changes that could impact us, our communities and our world – the good, the bad and the ugly:

  • The new spectrum of threats facing us
  • The accelerating pace of technological innovation
  • The growing complexity and interconnectedness of our communities
  • The after shocks of the Great Recession
  • Unrealistic expectations about what governments can do
  • Global graying
  • The increasing costs of natural disasters due to poor land use practices and planning

Using our confident mindset and our commitment, we then use systems thinking to analyze our present state and to identify those changes that may profoundly affect our futures.  We are all embedded in systems and systems-of-systems and a seemingly never-ending hierarchy of complexities. Each of us is embedded in multiple supply chains that stretch beyond our own communities and sometimes span the globe. Developing a realistic vision of what we can become requires that we understand the structure and behavior of these systems – requires systems thinking.

In 2004, the British Prime Minister’s Strategic Group provided an excellent description of systems thinking as

“both a mindset and particular set of tools for identifying and mapping the inter-related nature and complexity of real world situations. It encourages explicit recognition of causes and effects, drivers and impacts, and in so doing helps anticipate the effect a policy intervention is likely to have on variables or issues of interest. Furthermore, the process of applying systems thinking to a situation is a way of bringing to light the different assumptions held by stakeholders or team members about the way the world works.”

Thus, resilience thinking is the use of systems thinking to develop a realistic vision of what we want to become in a world of change, and of how we are going to get there. That means identifying the changes that may occur, the forces that will cause those changes, and a vision of how we can survive and even thrive in the face of those changes.

Thus, we use system thinking to develop a map of the world we live in now – its structure and its behavior. Still using systems thinking, we identify the agents of change that can alter that map and how that map might be altered in the future. We then develop a vision of what we must become to survive and thrive in an altered world.

Systems thinking requires that we employ certain skills. We must:

  • Pay more attention to the forest and its boundaries than to the trees. This allows us to identify the “Big Picture” drivers of change and our relationship to them. It also means that we recognize that there are stakeholders with different interests and goals that may not be aligned with ours who may constrain what we can become.
  • Look at the video and don’t rely on snapshots. We are where we are now by following a certain path; consider the trajectory we followed (I’ve written about this before – see here). If we don’t alter course, we’ll keep going in the same direction – is that going to take us where we want to be?
  • Remember that achieving the vision is a process, with flows of information and resources driven only in part by ourselves. As with any process, progress will be by fits and starts and entail significant delays. Have we considered these in developing our path forward?
  • Recognize that the process of becoming more resilient will be impacted by interdependencies among different parts of the system and by feedback loops. A step forward may move us two steps to the side; the surest path is almost certainly not a straight line.

Resilience thinking thus comes down to what Ryan Peterson calls grit: “an ability and attitude of persistence, endurance, evolution, reinvention, resilience, and above all, nurturing a culture of dexterity.”

Grit “travels beyond rules and regulations, and shifts the focus towards new entrepreneurial relationships (that can withstand political cycles), institutional innovation (that can overcome institutional memories), and value transformation that disrupts cultural inertia.”

The Goal of Resilient Thinking


Transforming ourselves or our communities so that we achieve a more resilient future requires a different mode of thought. Through resilience thinking we will see the world in the context of almost continual change. Our self-confidence will give us the courage to take off our colored glasses and to see the world and potential agents of change as they are, not as we wish them to be. Our commitment will enable us to stay the course in developing a realistic vision and a pathway to achieve that vision.  Systems thinking is the tool we will use to shape the vision so that it encompasses the real world of change in which we live. Thus, resilience thinking is essential for imagining what we can become in this Age of Change and for designing the path toward a more resilient future.

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