Resilience Engineering #13: Tap Dancing on Ball Bearings

by Gary Monti on September 13, 2011

Moving quickly and accurately in an ever-changing environment is a key business skill in today’s environment. Success insures the competition will be coming at you even harder possibly using the tips, tricks, tools, and techniques you’ve created and mastered. Let’s look at what it takes to survive.

The Dynamic vs. The Product

To work in the environment described above resilience is needed. Resilience is about the dynamic, about how a system responds to shifts in the environment, rather than just focusing on the product or a specific component in the system. I tell clients and students the following:

“Working in a resilient manner is like tap dancing on ball bearings.”

Staying with ball bearings but shifting the frame of reference, look at the illustration. If the project falls into the trough, a dramatic, irreversible change can occur. This is the terrain of complex systems.

What To Do?

Managing projects in such situations is as much an art as a science.  A risk management perspective can help an organization gauge its survivability by assessing the three types of responses possible in changing situations.

  • Passive acceptance. The change that occurs can simply be allowed to play out.  This is acceptable when we have a good sense of the ripple effect and feel it will dampen out or have a low impact. An example from a previous blog goes like this: 10 animals are charging you. You have 4 bullets in your gun. Which do you shoot? Well, if one is the rabbit Thumper from “Bambi” passive acceptance will probably work. With passive acceptance we take the risk of doing nothing until AFTER the threat has turned into a problem. What if Thumper has rabies and bites?
  • Active acceptance. This is one of the most popular responses. For example, a tiger team is formed to find out why the installation is failing at several sites. This is fixing the problem when in the thick of things. With active acceptance something is done DURING the time the threat is turning into a problem.
  • Mitigation. “Thinking ahead and executing a strategy” would be the watch-phrase for mitigation. It comprises doing something BEFORE the threat is actualized and turns into a problem. Hiring extra staff that has field experience and including them during the planning phase so as to get their expertise into the design before the installation is a good example of mitigation. The team can double-dip on this one because the extra staff will also be available during active acceptance. This balancing act is dynamic. There is nothing static about it.

There is no setting-and-forgetting.


Think of how the hiring of extra experienced field staff affects the dynamic of the entire project. Let’s look at what the word “experienced” means regarding all stakeholders and team members, not just the field staff.  It means having people well-versed and seasoned in the four capabilities of resilience:

  • Knowing what has happened
  • Knowing what to look for
  • Knowing what to expect
  • Knowing what to do

In working with clients I’ve found that focusing on these four capabilities up, down, and across the organization and developing a harmonized, orchestrated corporate sensitivity to risk management increases the ability to do the tap dancing and deliver the product. It is this esprit de corps that helps insure the success.

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