Adaptive Capacity Labs

Troubled Times: Episode 3

Demonstrating adaptability and the need for sustained adaptability

Projections made in previous TT episode

The projections made in Episode 2 are largely confirmed by experience during the summer.

Private communications with individuals on these topics reveal substantial levels of stress and stress-related disturbances, notably sleep cycle disturbances, vivid dreaming, varying degrees of anhedonia, strained personal relationships, free-floating and focused anxieties, and other mood alterations. Some firms have laid off technical personnel; others have hired new staff. Weather-related stress is prominent for many. Political conflict is adding stress; a remarkable feature is exploitation of troubled times for political gain.

The situation now

There are four related crises:

  1. Covid-19 pandemic
  2. Economic slowdown
  3. Social disintegration
  4. Climate change

While it is tempting to treat one of these as a ’cause’ of the others, the interactions between them flow back and forth. Any analysis of the current situation necessarily engages all of these crises. In keeping with the general pattern for complex systems, the interactions between the four sometimes dampen but often amplify effects, sometimes dramatically.

Remarkably resilient!

What is most remarkable about the past 9 months is how resilient society has been. Despite the severity and duration of the interacting crises, people and organizations are mostly functioning. There is water and food (for many), the phones work (again, for many), the internet is (mostly) still up, the lights are (mostly) on, and so forth. The pattern of damage has allowed response through resource sharing — adaptation in the face of challenge that is a hallmark of resilience.

The adaptive capacity of individuals, groups, organizations, regions, industries, and nations has been greater and easier to mobilize than many of us would have expected. Even in the face of provocations and deliberate attempts to foment destruction (largely for narrow political gain) the thing that is most striking is that ‘ordinary’ life continues in much of the world even though the economic and social situation remains precarious.

Some ‘ordinary’ life activities, of course, contribute to the continuation and amplification of the crises. It is already clear that epidemic community spread of Covid is still a danger, whether at Sturgis, SD or Iowa City, IA.

The interacting crises are entrenched.

The potential for community spread of Covid-19 will persist throughout 2021. The experience with re-opening and return to school clearly demonstrates this. Far from being a “magic bullet”, any vaccine will become embroiled in controversy delaying complete population immunization into — or even beyond — 2022. Sporadic and sometimes sustained outbreaks will continue for the next year. There will be other SARS-like infectious disease outbreaks — this is, after all, the third such epidemic in recent times.

The economic damage already incurred will take many years to repair — possibly a full decade.

The climate crisis is becoming prominent. Although it might, in principle, be limited in its effects, there seems to be very little probability of a coordinated effort being joined. For planning purposes, the climate situation can only be projected to deteriorate further. The pattern of extreme weather, fires, droughts, and torrential rain will continue and may accelerate within the decade.

Social disintegration, notably nationalist populism, that has been so visible in 2020 has been sustained and amplified by the other three crises.

The reverberations in business continue to be widespread. The scramble to deal with the shifts in workplace and workforce, the wide variations in workload — both technical and organizational — and the unpredictable future course have evoked dramatic changes.

The effect will be a transformation: the world will never return to a pre-pandemic state. Instead the crises and reactions to them will produce yet more change, much of it disruptive. More importantly, the pace of change is more likely to increase than to decrease. We’re only getting started.

Adjustments in tech

Our clients and colleagues tell us that tech firms are struggling to adjust to the current situation, to predict the future for their market sector and the larger economy, and to plan for the future.

Working from alternate locations

The happiest note thus far is success in working “from home”. The shift to fully distributed work has been substantially easier than many predicted. Thankfully, the technology infrastructure has borne the load without much trouble. There are indications that office work will not resume the old pattern. Instead it seems likely that less than half of ‘office’ workers will return to working inside a building with their brethren. The boundary between work and home — already quite fuzzy — has become even less distinct. Especially if many schools continue ‘remote learning’ this may well become the usual way of working. A side effect of this may be to reduce the impact of job on residential location — a change that could have profound economic impact. However it plays out, remote working is likely to remain a fixture, especially in tech.

Changing the workforce

Tech-intensive companies are, in some cases, shedding technical workers by moving towards technology-as-a-service (TaaS). TaaS means transferring the entire technical enterprise to an external vendor, often one with lower labor costs. The Vanguard-Infosys deal Is a possible example. There may be a parallel here with the abandonment of on-shore manufacturing seen in the 1990s.

Beyond the obvious difficulties of managing such third-party arrangements, there are at least two incident-related risks:

  1. Risk of losing organizational memory. Knowledge about how things work, where the “explody bits” are, what has been attempted and found not useful is likely to be lost as the people who know those things are made redundant or leave for other jobs.
  2. Risk of losing learning capacity. The future promises even more rapid change taking place above and below above and below the line with new forms of failure arriving on the scene and unfamiliar organizational and technical resources to address them. Rapid, purposeful learning from experience, especially from incidents, is more important than ever and, simultaneously, may become harder than ever.
Resilience in context

Resilience is used in different and not entirely compatible ways. For many, especially in tech, resilience has come to mean rebound — return to the the status quo ante. But the interacting crises of 2020 are not ending and there is no possibility of a return to the way things were in 2019. Today resilience implies successful adaptation to the changed and changing world. In the facde of continued change being resilient requires sustained adaptation. See table 3 here.

Learning from incidents more important now

Incidents point to vulnerable locations in our systems. Changing environments and requirements that lead to adaptation also shift the vulnerabilities in our systems, creating new paths to failure.

We cannot foretell the particular forms of failure that will appear. We can confidently forecast that learning from incidents will be more important as change and adaptation accelerate. Some reactions to the interacting crises may frustrate the ability to learn. Incident response in tech has largely focused on fixing broken bits of the technical system — effectively rebounding to the prior state. Sustaining adaptive capacity will require better quality learning at a faster pace. The organizational imperative now is learning how to learn.


The depth and breadth of change will insure that tech-related incidents will continue to dog internet-facing businesses, governments, and non-governmental organizations. New configurations and uses of technology will create new forms of failure — in some cases breeding new crises. 2020 has shown the value of adaptive capacity. 2021 will show whether or not adaptive capacity can be sustained.