Big Ideas

PopTech’s Andrew Zolli: How To Remain Resilient In Times of Constant Disruption

To survive and thrive in the midst of constant disruption, a meeting professional needs to be resilient. For advice and insight into exactly how, we talked to Andrew Zolli, executive director and curator of the PopTech conference.

That was some year we just had, huh? The sequester and federal government shutdown. The Boston Marathon bombing and Typhoon Haiyan. Detroit’s bankruptcy filing and Europe’s ongoing debt crisis.

And those are just some of the major headlines from 2013, which seemed to be nothing but tumult and upheaval — sort of like the five years before that, from the Great Recession to the earthquake in Haiti and the tsunami in Japan to India’s historic power outages. We live in interesting times, and that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change anytime soon.

To survive and thrive in the midst of constant disruption, a meeting professional needs to be resilient. For advice and insight into exactly how, we talked to Andrew Zolli, executive director and curator of the PopTech conference, who along with Ann Marie Healy wrote the book Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back a wide-ranging, multidisciplinary look at why certain organizations and individuals can absorb shocks and keep moving forward and others can’t. Here are excerpts from our conversation:

In Resilience, you write that something that makes this sense of disruption more pronounced for countries like the United States is that over the last several years, they’ve emerged from a “vacation from history.” How does that manifest itself?

I’m in my 40s, and my first real decade as an adult was the ‘90s, much as I imagine it must have been for you. It’s sort of like the first decade you really owned. The ‘90s were pretty fabulous. The Soviet Union was collapsing. The Internet was ascendant. There was a sense that American economic superiority was going to rule for decades to come. There was an enormous run-up in the stock market. Americans were spending the peace dividends that we got from the close of the Cold War. Life was great. It was fat city.

Compare that to the decade that followed. It’s a decade that started in many people’s minds with a global act of terrorism and ended with a global financial crisis, with big wars and natural disasters and all kinds of things wedged in the middle. The first decade of the 21st century in many ways kind of blew a sense of control away. At the same time, we saw a deep polarization of American politics, a kind of gumming up the works of the kinds of institutions that provided dynamism to our national experiment. I think what has happened is that we’ve seen a shift — which you might think of as a shift in humility. A sense that the world’s become a much more volatile place. In fact, what we’ve really seen is the normalization of volatility.

The question is, if you can’t control the waves, what can you do? The answer is you can learn to build a better boat. Think about engineering our organizations and our companies and our institutions and our networks for maximum resiliency. That is to say, ensure that they can operate under the widest variety of circumstances, because you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.

What makes someone personally resilient?

It turns out, first of all, that resilience is much more naturally prevalent in human beings than some of our self-help literature might suggest. You might think from reading the literature that people fall down when they experience a trauma or a potentially traumatic event. But actually, the data suggests that somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of people who experience a potentially disruptive traumatic event have no lasting permanent damage, without any other human intervention. Either they don’t have a traumatic response or they have a traumatic response that dissipates over time. But that means that there’s always about a third of people who can be very seriously affected by the disruptions and vicissitudes of life.

Social scientists and psychologists and neuroscientists and others have begun to really unpack individual differences. There’s not a single silver bullet. There are instead lots and lots of different factors that affect who is more or less resilient. For instance, the strength and quality of your social network matters a lot. The quality of your most intimate relationships — in the context of close, loving family relationships, the degree to which you express and can receive expressions of love and intimacy matters a lot. Your genes contribute. Your physical health matters a lot. Your lived experiences obviously matter. Your access to resources makes a major contribution.

The thing that’s interesting about most of these factors is that most of them aren’t within our control. There’s not much you can do about your genes. There’s not much you can do necessarily about your access to resources. But there are some things that this new science of personal resilience has begun to uncover about what makes us more or less resilient. Things we can do to bolster our resilience.

Probably the most important one is about our habits of mind. Here, what we’re talking about is training the way in which we live and the way in which we process the emotional content of lived experience. If you believe that the world is a meaningful place, that you have agency within it, that you have the ability to make change and see that change through and essentially affect your world; if you believe that successes and failures are put in your path to teach you things as opposed to being the random acts of a capricious world — then you’re much more likely to process potentially negative events in a way that improves your ability to cope with them. Belief systems matter a lot.

The place that is getting the most attention right now is on what we could think of as mindfulness practices; practices that change the way we process the emotional content of day-to-day experience. Instead of thinking that emotions are part of the response, what you realize is that you have a certain level of emotional reserve. You can think about it like a gas tank. If and when events happen, you can decide how much emotional character to invest in the response. What you can do is eventually decide with rehearsal to invest only enough that your gas tank never runs out. Because it’s when your gas tank runs out that you do real damage.

Do people who are personally resilient tend to create organizations and systems that are also more resilient?

There’s no question that resilient people tend to create more resilient kinds of enterprises, though the data is a little bit complicated. You can have real differences in the innate level of resilience among people within an enterprise. If you have assumptions that certain things are tolerable at the top, they’re different than the kinds of assumptions of what is tolerable, say, in the middle. Then you can actually have resilient people who create less resilient organizations, because they’re willing to put up with things that everyone else isn’t willing to do.

It depends on how you define a resilient enterprise. It’s a problem, because resilience is always measured retrospectively. We always understand it in the context of what happened as opposed to understanding it in the context of what could happen in the future: This organization is resilient. Well, resilient to what? Or under what circumstances, when?

Are there certain characteristics that resilient organizations share?

Sure. When organizations encounter disruptions, one of the first things to observe about those disruptions is that they’re almost always unforeseeable. Because a disruption that is foreseeable is often avoided. By definition, the stuff you’re left over with is the stuff you didn’t see coming. By extension, the things you didn’t see coming are very hard to plan for. As a result, the most resilient enterprises are ones that are highly improvisational when a disruption occurs.

On my website, there’s a model of resilience. It breaks it up into four clusters of activities. The first one is about building regenerative capacity. This is a slow process by which organizations and communities and societies build health. What you see is that the systems that are resilient are in some part of them always building long-term healthy capacity. In a community or an organization, that might be entrepreneurial capacity or creative capacity. A really important form of capacity is trust — the ability of people to trust one another. Social capital and people having invested relationships in one another are forms of capacity.

The second cluster of activity is sensing emerging disruption. Now, not every disruption can be listened for in advance, by definition. But here we ask, how do we instrument a company, an organization, a community, an industry, a society to listen for signals of change? It begs all these questions: How and what is a sensor? What is a signal? Who does the sensing? Who does the listening? What do you do with a signal of impending change if you get one? There is a big, complicated set of processes that go on around listening for change.

The third area is about responding to disruption. Usually this is where the resilience narrative really picks up for people, because we typically frame resilience in terms of response. The most important thing to say about it is that a resilient response to a disruption is one that is typically very improvisational. The responses tend to be what we call “adhocratic,” not bureaucratic; they’re adhocracies and not bureaucracies. In an adhocracy, it’s sort of like the musical equivalent of jazz. There’s a lot of improvisation. There’s a lot of collaboration. There’s not as much planning. There are a lot of building tools as you need them. Organizations that are very bureaucratic and that don’t have the ability to pivot and don’t have a lot of trust inside their organizations — those are the things that actually dampen a resilient response.

Then the last cluster is what we call learning and transformation. This is another long and slow process where you have to think to yourself, okay, how do we change the system in such a way that we’re not as vulnerable to this particular disruption in the future? What is the way in which we might transform the system? Or what key lessons do you take from it?

There are feedback loops all among and between each of these four clusters. They all connect to each other. They all influence one another in a dynamic way. A resilient enterprise, a resilient person, a resilient community, a resilient industry does all four of those things all the time, at the same time.

Has PopTech experienced any significant upheaval or disruption over the last year or two?

One of the things that we’ve seen is the commodification of conventions. There just seem to be a huge, gigantic volume of them. And in general, amplified by the Internet and all kinds of other things, there are just more ways for people to connect. In my experience, there’re a lot of “metooism.” The events, if you put your thumb over the logo or the particular industry segment, sometimes you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between them. There’s been a kind of market saturation.

One of the things that’s interesting about that is, how could it be the case that we have market saturation with commoditized products in the conventions space — while we have the rise of the Internet and high-quality video on demand and screen sharing and social media, and all of these other ways for people to spread ideas and to connect with each other? That’s weird, right? You shouldn’t see both things happening at the same time. You should see no Internet and lots of convening. Or you’d expect just to have the Internet and virtually no convening. How can you end up with both?

The answer, I think, is that the digital makes the analog more important, because people are being more productive when they’re not together, and because our individual reach through those technologies expands so dramatically. What becomes important is face time. What becomes important is intimacy, the intimacy of real face-to-face connection.

One of the big macro trends in the world — and this really surprised me — is that today 30 percent of the U.S. labor force is what we call “contingent labor.” That means they’re not really employed by the company they work for. They’re on contract. They’re per-malancers and freelancers. And that number is expected to rise potentially as high as 50 percent in the next couple of decades. That means half the labor force is basically on their own. They’re working for a company, but their relationship is not one that’s a deep relationship. We’re seeing the rise of gig culture, project culture.

What’s interesting is that people are more connected in certain ways to each other through digital technology. But their relationship between themselves and the companies they work for has fundamentally changed. My dad worked for 35 years for the same company, for the electric company in Massachusetts, while my career has been managed in 10-year increments. I did one thing for 10 years, I did another thing for 10 years, and have moved along through the world like that.

If you look at Milliennials, they’re managing on like a three-year cycle, if they’re lucky enough to be employed. They’re not going into a field or a job or whatever with the view that they’re necessarily going to be there for all that long. Staying might even be worse. Getting employed and then sticking around in that company could actually be detrimental to their careers, because they’re trying to collect as many of these short-cycle experiences. What I think is fascinating is, that drives the need for more authentic, real connections for people. It drives the need for people to meet. So that’s good for the meetings business.

It seems that if meetings and conferences are done well, they can engender resilience in a community or an industry or a profession — by helping people build relationships and foster emotional connections, and facilitating interactions that are somewhat adhocratic and improvisational.

I think you’re exactly right. The thing is, the difference between doing it well and doing it poorly can sometimes be a very narrow one. Done poorly, not only do they not help, but they can actually hinder those processes.

I certainly think events and purposeful, meaningful gatherings are essential. When you’re trying to get people to do work together and to be together, having moments where people can get celebrated and shine a bright, happy light on their work — it’s enormously motivating for people. People will do amazing things not for money, but for genuine recognition and appreciation, for meaningful recognition and appreciation. That’s essential to community resilience, without a question and without a doubt in my mind. But inauthentic stuff does just the opposite. It’s the worst.

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.