Want resilience? Nurture diversity.

One of the learnings from complexity that I find particularly valuable in the workplace, is the need for a “requisite diversity” for a system to be resilient and able to evolve. Too little diversity limits the system’s adaptive capacity and too much diversity leads a loss of coherence.

This is valuable insight, especially in countries like South Africa where diversity has become a loaded term that is usually associated with race and gender quotas and painful compliance processes.   Complexity provides the science and rationale for diversity to be seen not a political or compliance problem to solve, but as a gift that enables the adaptive capacity required to thrive in this so-called VUCA world.

An analogy I often use to illustrate this is the contrast between a typical commercial farm, like a sheep farm and a protected area or national park like South Africa’s Kruger National Park.   When there is a disruption in the external environment, for example a drought, the Kruger Park will probably survive, as it has done over many years. Not without significant loss or change, but because of the natural bio-diversity in both plant and animal life we know there will be sufficient resilience to survive the schock.  For example, if the grass disappears, some antelope species will be affected, but there are others who eat leaves from bushes and trees, that will not be as affected.   Biodiversity ensures adaptive capacity and resilience in the face of disruption.

On the other hand, a sheep farm, because of the homogeneity in animal and plant life, probably will not survive for very long. All the animals depend on similar food sources, and once depleted, the system has no adaptive capacity will not survive without outside intervention (e.g. buying food and trucking it in).  In organisational terms, they will suffer a Kodak moment.

We can think about diversity in many ways and unfortunately organisations often fall into the trap of limiting our thinking to “categories” such as race, age and gender diversity. However, we also need to ensure sufficient diversity of perspective.  This is why the drive to create a single prescribed and aligned culture across an organisation is usually not a good idea. While we do need coherence of direction and a shared ethos (vs aligned values), we need to allow for, and encourage different thinking to ensure the organisation has adaptive capacity and resilience when the context shifts (or more accurately in an ever-shifting) context.  Organisations often realise this and actively tries to recruit people who are different.  Problem is that as soon as those different people arrive, the system’s immune response kicks in and they either get “asssimilated” or they leave.  A key question for leaders and OD practitioners therefore is: how do we create environments where unique perspectives are valued and nurtured?

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One thought on “Want resilience? Nurture diversity.

  1. Any system for it to be viable it must be capable of dealing with the complexity of its environment. Organizations are not able to create the same amount of complexity internally as their environment expose: only variety absorbs variety (Beer) therefore to cope with complexity, the variety the organization can produce has to be amplified towards the environment at the least possible costs and the variety that environment exposes has to be attenuated towards the organization. The SA challenge is to ensure viability and sustainabiliy; reality is that current policy impacts system performance making system less resilient (low basin of attraction). SA great case study for validating resilience theory, panarchy ect…

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