Resilience By Design

Two things have occurred to me recently as part of my ongoing journey to better educate myself on the ever- evolving concept of resilience.

Firstly, I got to share half an hour with a senior manager within one of my previous organisations who had recently taken up a lead position in resilience. The individual came from a seasoned engineering background but not specifically continuity and resilience. In our short conversation they were able to inspire me to try to look at resilience in different ways as often as I can to see what I could learn.

Secondly, I recently found a reference to an article in some notes being shared with me to a paper that was published in 2020 on the concepts, constructs, and mechanisms relating to resilience. It was academic and it didn’t apply to my usual financial services context but I really liked the way it helped me look at the same thing but in a different way.

Both the conversation and the article have proven to me that you can refresh your understanding of something by taking an alternative perspective.

Resilience Principles in Engineering

Okay, so the conversation with the engineer was pretty simple. This individual was able to talk me through an example to help me understand how in fact everything that they had been involved in throughout their career was founded on resilient principles and it was nothing new to them. They explained to me that product design and materials engineering within the automotive industry has to consider resilience themes from day one. Themes such as tolerance thresholds for their chosen materials and the ways in which they are being used before deciding on whether they should be included or not.

After this conversation I went straight to Google and came across a guy called Erik Hollnagle who is a published author on resilience concepts in engineering and he is quoted on this blog from the Resilience Engineers Association which provides a great background of how resilience is viewed via this perspective. It appears to be created as a contrast to safety management and offers some really useful basic principles for resilience and calls for constant evolution.

Resilience engineering must free itself from the frame of reference that might have been of some value ten years ago (yet even that is doubtful), but which surely will impede any further development.

Resilience Engineers Association – 2019

Change the Perspective

I have been reading so many articles and listening to so many podcasts (admittedly from my own professional community/sphere) that I never stopped to consider how the concept of resilience is applied in other ways.

Of course, the engineers are right and it sounds so obvious now I say it out loud. Those product designers and material engineers have to consider core components of resilience from the outset. Once they understand what they’re designing and who they’re designing it for and why, the next question is what materials are they going to use and how it will meet the needs of the design and purpose. For example, if I were to develop a 4×4 truck to off road, would the materials of that design have the same needs as perhaps the requirements of a Formula One racing car? I’m not an engineer but I’m guessing racing cars need lighter metals whereas trucks could allow for something stronger for durability. I’m also pretty confident the way in which they are designed will be different because they have entirely different objectives. Every decision about every material, design and build will have had to have considered beforehand just how resilient they want it to be.

I’ve heard the term resilient by design said quite a few times and I have never really appreciated the simplicity of it. I guess whenever I’ve taken to designing a business continuity plan for example, it’s always been about the ability to recover and respond to an incident but beyond that I don’t think I’ve ever applied the same approach by asking myself why am writing the plan in the first place? Obviously I know I’m writing the plan to detail how the business will respond and recover to a disruption but beyond that reason. Why is it even needed? That reminds me, I must read that book Start With Why. Maybe I need to do this more often in everything I do at work. All in the name of development eh?

The Resilience Trinity Approach

The article I stumbled on not only supported that I should try to find new ways to look at things differently, it also offered some pretty useful fundamental ideas to resilience. In summary, it proposes a thing called the Resilience Trinity and it was published in January 2020 and has about 30 authors. It uses ecosystem services such as water purification and wood production to provide examples of how their approach can be applied.

I should probably say that I am coming at this from a professional continuity and resilience practitioner perspective in financial services and this an academic article which is presenting itself in the context of ecosystem services. I am looking to apply this approach into my own context and will be henceforth commenting as such. Let me also say that nothing in this paper is radically groundbreaking but what excites me more about it is that it provides individuals with an opportunity to look at the same thing with a different slant and explanation which might uncover new learning.

Time Horizons

One of the things the paper first looks to discuss is the notion of time horizons in decision making which they break down into three contexts in which decisions must be made.

First is reactive, whereby the threat is known and imminent and there is a high pressure to act. Second is adjustive, whereby the threat is known in general but the organisation still has time to adapt their position to react, and third is provident, whereby the nature of the threat is uncertain and the timescales are very long which may lead to an unwillingness to act. I think most enterprise risk management frameworks pick this up as part of their likelihood thresholds and risk appetite but this presents a different and useful way of explaining time constructs and decision-making.

Recovery as a Single State – Reductionist?

The paper also talked about how the concept of recovery is reductionist because it only often considers a single state variable i.e (for me) the recovery of a business. I guess ultimately one will know when one’s recovered as nothing seems to be on fire anymore and BAU resumes. However, the argument in this paper is that to achieve a view of recovery it would require the knowledge of the entire set of variables available to be fully confident in the view of its own recovery. How confident are you that your organisation has that? I’d like to think most do?

Resilience Mechanisms

My favourite part of the article is the description of resilience mechanisms which are so simple it’s beautiful.

The paper covers mechanisms such as redundancy for example which most disaster recovery managers will be well aware of more than anybody in terms of redundancy within data centres. But redundancy can be applied in many different scenarios. There is also a mechanism called diversity. The argument here is that by producing a range of different services, the diversity of your offering would otherwise still be available should just one be impacted. I think a lot of modern commercial organisations apply that one. No one wants to be another blockbusters! Another good one in the paper is the mechanism of modularity whereby one might decentralise in the event one area is impacted it will not affect the other areas and of the business could continue. I suppose this is similar to diversity in a way because the diversity does break up your offering just in a commercial way. I believe a number of international businesses do this with legal entities in different jurisdictions that essentially operate as individual organisations. There are others to such as adaptability where perhaps services could be re-combined to manage different disruptions. All very useful but those were my favourites.

Redundancy. Modularity. Diversity. Adaptability.


So now that I’ve had that conversation with the engineer, done some Googling and I’ve read and tried to understand that article (in the context of my experience) – what now?

Well, first of all I will now always try to go back to the question of why we are doing this in the first place. Start with why.

Then I should probably apply some or all of the resilience mechanisms/ fundamentals to what I’m designing and in the context of the three different time horizons. This will help me categorise different controls that I could consider. So for a business continuity plan for example one question would be – what mechanisms am I using in this plan and in what time horizon am I going to deploy them? I feel like it adds a bit more science and rationale to it than simply just writing a plan then testing it.

I’ll also keep looking for resilience perspectives in different sectors and professions that will broaden my own understanding!