A Systems Approach to Crisis Preparedness and Organizational Resilience

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Letter to Nolan Thevenet explaining our Interest in Visiting

Dear Nolan,

Thank you for allowing our class to visit on April 12. We’re all excited about the trip; I’m sure we’ll get a great deal out of it. To develop an agenda and make the best use of your time, I’d like to explain our purposes.

The complete title of the course is “A Systems Approach to Crisis Preparedness and Organizational Resilience.” Although we cover the basics of Crisis Preparedness (CP), we go beyond in three ways:

1.   An emphasis on Resiliency
2.   A Systemic Perspective
3.   Exploration of Opportunity associated with Crisis
Our approach to CP relies on two distinct strategies:
Predict and Prevent (PaP), i.e., try to predict potential crises so as to either prevent them or at least mitigate the effects. (This is more-or-less standard CP, although we take a far broader view -- more below); and
Developing Resiliency, i.e., generalized capacities to cope with unforeseen, even unforeseeable, adversity. In general, educators and bureaucracies have a much easier time of it with PaP than with resiliency. Making up spreadsheets, estimating probabilities and developing protocols are things business schools can teach and bureaucrats can understand. in contrast, the practices of resiliency, e.g., strong core values, independence, organic structure, slack resources, resist simple algorithms and becoming resilient usually demands vigorous swimming against the tide of contemporary theory, education and practice.[1]
A Systemic Perspective
Some organizations prepare well for technological crises and natural disasters, but few do for macro events that could be just as devastating. We try to think about CP systematically – by identifying the larger systems in which an organization is contained and the associated vulnerabilities (warning: this will likely be very alarming!)
One of the systemic threats we’ve looked at -- leading to an array of precipitous crises – is industrial agriculture. We devoted a full class session to YU Ranch (in Ontario, Canada) practices, which it seems address most of the most worrisome vulnerabilities of industrial agriculture, thus providing some systemic resiliency.
I’ll send you the YU Ranch materials. The main reason for our visit is to see for ourselves a real-life example of such an enterprise and learn of your perspective on industrial agriculture and experience initiating an alternative.
Crisis and Opportunity

Finally, I like to emphasize that crisis almost always entails not only danger and vulnerability, but also opportunity.

This is partly because of my background[2], but more because I believe that the best opportunities really do arise from the most extreme changes. Moreover, if we can see a silver lining – or gold filling! – in crisis, perhaps we’re more likely to prepare for a threat, rather than just hope it doesn’t happen.

In the YU ranch case, owner Brian Gilvesy claims that organic, sustainable farming can not only be more conducive to well-being than the industrial model, but more profitable! To this point some class participants raised doubts, which were apparently supported by a recent NPR broadcast on the subject… (I’ll see if we can find a link on that).

So on this point, we’d like to understand your experience of the business of sustainability.

The Plan
The plan is to leave Penn @ 10 am, thus arriving a bit after noon.  The class, however, is flexible on itinerary for that day, so please suggest if we should come earlier or later. We also don’t have a good sense about how long we should plan to stay – or  what exactly we’ll do there. Class members Sarah Chang and Ana Olivos have volunteered to develop an agenda for the trip. They’d like to try to schedule a brief phone call to discuss this with you.


Again, thank you so much for hosting our visit. I enthusiastically look forward to getting out to your farm and meeting with you again.

Best regards, Steve
Thursday, March 28, 2013 7:26am

[1] e.g., maximizing profit, globalization, long, highly-specialized supply chains and Just-In-Time production strategy
[2] I originally came to Penn to teach Entrepreneurship at Wharton and have been involved in many start-ups. And I’ve always been involved in activities with creativity and Innovation at the core. I formally studied Innovation during my PhD studies at MIT, and the other major course I still do teach is Creativity and Innovation in Organizations and Work.  


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Date Page Created: Apr 17, 2013 Last Page Update: Sep 21, 2014