Consider the Risks of Global Networks and Build in Buffers

Connectivity is a fact of life in 21st Century economic, political, and social systems. We are now inextricably related to one another through networks that provide immense opportunities for leveraged scale and benefits, but which also expose us to the dark side of being unable to protect ourselves from the destructive actions of others over whom we have limited awareness or influence. 

Nassim Taleb has been examining these phenomena throughout his career. He is best known for coining the term, “black swan,” which identifies major unanticipated permutations of events upon these complex systems. A survivor of the Lebanese civil war growing up, he has been preoccupied of late with the responses around the globe to COVID-19. The pandemic has exposed the dangerous underbelly of global networks and “just in time” supply chains, which must be instructive to business and political leaders as we move forward to build the post-pandemic economy.

As Bernard Avishai reported from his recent interview with Taleb in The New Yorker, the pandemic isn’t a “black swan” but an event that reflects the dangers of global connectivity: 

“The great danger has always been too much connectivity.” Proliferating global networks, both physical and virtual, inevitably incorporate more fat-tail risks into a more interdependent and “fragile” system: not only risks such as pathogens but also computer viruses, or the hacking of information networks, or reckless budgetary management by financial institutions or state governments, or spectacular acts of terror. Any negative event along these lines can create a rolling, widening collapse—a true black swan—in the same way that the failure of a single transformer can collapse an electricity grid.

Covid-19 has initiated ordinary citizens into the esoteric “mayhem” that Taleb’s writings portend. Who knows what will change for countries when the pandemic ends? What we do know, Taleb says, is what cannot remain the same. He is “too much a cosmopolitan” to want global networks undone, even if they could be. But he does want the institutional equivalent of “circuit breakers, fail-safe protocols, and backup systems,” many of which he summarizes in his fourth, and favorite, book, “Antifragile,” published in 2012. For countries, he envisions political and economic principles that amount to an analogue of his investment strategy: government officials and corporate executives accepting what may seem like too-small gains from their investment dollars, while protecting themselves from catastrophic loss.”

When now looking at our efforts to deepen our efforts at What Matters, Taleb’s approach offers great wisdom: We need to create systems that include buffers, those protections that insulate risk factors and limit their ability to infect the entire system. We must do so while staying true to our Values and Intentions, especially:

Transparency: By demonstrating openness in our deliberation processes, we engender trust among those constituencies and partners who must take the risk, with us, to address concerns that are Upstream and which, most likely, do not seem tangible.

Integrity: We must constantly dare to question ourselves and be open to hearing criticisms and concerns from others. This discomfort is essential to navigate the inherent uncertainties of such times, and comes with a big dose of Humility. 

Communication: When in doubt, let people know what you know and (more importantly) what you don’t know. Share the burden of knowledge with others whose perspectives may inform your own. 

Inclusivity: Hear from all voices, especially those typically marginalized and feeling pain that may be caused by the actions of those with traditional privileges in the organization or community. This is a “long game,” and it requires resources that may not be immediately apparent. To insure those resources are available to solve emerging issues, an inclusive approach to problem-solving is a key value. 

Creative Flexibility: Consider options and ways to frame situations that have never been tried before. These are far more likely to emerge if Inclusivity is actually occurring, as this builds capacity for creative thinking. Facilitate processes that encourage divergent thinking, adaptability, and the capacity to defer judgment as long as possible. 

Compassion (and Forgiveness): Make a genuine effort to understand the pain being experienced in the present time, as well as the trauma triggered from past events by unanticipated crises being experienced in this moment. As you confront your own harm and pain, seek a path of reconciliation that may allow you to move forward and fully experience the opportunities of this new moment.

In a practical way, we may apply this thinking at a few different levels: 

  • In our Project Teams, we need to be sure the integrity of the team’s work is protected through documentation (including version control), transparency of decision-making and inclusive deliberation processes, with continuous communication among team members and with other teams within the system being impacted. At every opportunity, deliver on promises and deadlines and be honest regarding when they are not being met so all can come together to determine how best to proceed… This is in contrast with a common practice to withhold such information until few options remain or the consequences of mistakes are already being felt elsewhere.
  • In the larger Organization: There are inter-dependencies that are both necessary and beneficial, yet there are risks that may be reduced by allowing “warnings” to be conveyed routinely, coupled with a shared commitment to understand emerging problems and address them without blame, finger pointing, or shame. This is akin to “pulling the chord” above an assembly line, made famous through Toyota’s “Kaizen” continuous improvement program and the specific “Andon” approach for signaling problems to others that should be addressed quickly and cooperatively. In fractal, interconnected systems, we may not fully appreciate the value of slowing things down, but to do so as part of a commitment to risk reduction can prevent disproportionate difficulties from overwhelming the system.
  • In the Industry or larger Community, it means that we examine the underlying assumptions built into our most robust and far-reaching systems and understand their current and future purposes. While they may have served us in the past, they may have evolved into systems that do not serve current needs. An excellent example is the role of police in ensuring public safety: There were very different priorities and dominant political voices in the 1990s than today, so those under-served and even oppressed by police actions are now being heard and understood by the privileged dominant culture in very different ways. Over time, police services (along with the criminal justice system) shifted from a community policing approach that had some commitments to rehabilitation in the 1970’s and 1980’s to a more militarized and punitive approach through the past 30 years. As a result, those with drug-related issues are prosecuted, rather than medically assisted, and those with mental health concerns are met with force and domination, rather than compassionate caring responses.
  • The future of public safety and violence prevention requires a re-imagination of these systems and their relationship to the communities being served, which includes coming to terms with uncomfortable truths about how racialized and marginalized communities in particular have been systematically deprived of basic human rights and dignity through this evolution. Making available resources to prevent and manage conflict, as well as restorative justice processes that can help people become “whole” in their lives as they go forward, will be essential buffers during this significant reconstruction of our public safety systems. 

As Nassim Taleb also points out, such approaches also require an acceptance of lower short-term profits on the part of businesses and investors (including those investing in public efforts). These lower initial returns are more than offset by reducing losses that are more likely to occur in fractal systems, so this risk reduction actually will result in increased profits over the long-term. In addition, if we keep in mind the “triple bottom line” previously discussed on this Blog, the social and political stability reduces the costs of significant upheaval and its associated relocation and restructuring efforts. If fewer of us live in the floodplain, for example, there will be reduced need to deal with the associated costs of increased flooding events that once were “one in a century” but which now occur every few years. 

Published by Harry Webne-Behrman

Harry Webne-Behrman is a consultant, facilitator, mediator, educator living in Ottawa, Ontario. Bringing vast experience to organizational challenges, specializing in complex conflicts, Harry offers coaching and consulting to people seeking to provide leadership to their organizations and communities on a wide range of issues.

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