Redundant Adaptable Systems

Natural systems use redundancy as a hedge against the uncertainty of the world. Our DNA is filled with redundant sequences, most organisms produce far more offspring than needed to effectively reproduce themselves, and ecosystems are filled with a diversity of species—each a redundant part that makes the ecosystem as a whole resilient to disturbance, unpredictability, and change.  There is fairly simple redundancy in nature—like the multiple copies of walking legs in centipedes—and there is what Geerat Vermeij calls “creative redundancy”—the transformation of simple redundant parts into specialized units.The biologist J.B.S. Haldane was purportedly once asked, “what do all your studies tell you about the nature of the Creator?”To which he replied, “He must have an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Beetles have dominated the Earth and diversified into thousands of different forms by creatively transforming the simple redundancy of their ancestors into wings and claws and armor and devices for shooting chemical weapons.  We tend to shudder at the word “redundancy”—we think it means the same as “wasteful” or “inefficient”.  We continually try to eliminate redundancy in our lives.  This comes from too narrowly viewing the wasteful aspects of redundancy. If redundancy is so useless, why is it so common in nature?When one of our kidneys fails, or a loved one desperately needs one of our healthy kidneys, we begin to respect nature’s redundancies.  Likewise, smart managers know how to use redundancy effectively.  A successful California CEO of a manufacturing firm, who often advises this consortium, is especially proud of an entire warehouse full of redundant spare parts he maintains.  Although there’s a cost to using all that space, when a helicopter of one of his clients is grounded somewhere or a critical piece of Emergency Room equipment fails, his customers know he is the only one in the industry who has the part, and they’ll pay dearly for it.  And the knowledge that he’s the one with the part you need when you need it, keeps customers coming back to him.  The Basketball Coach Phil Jackson, as Rafe writes about in Learning from the Octopus, used a more sophisticated form of creative redundancy to craft three straight championship teams in Chicago.  There he had to balance the talents of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen with the unpredictability and volatility of his star defensive player, Dennis Rodman.  Rodman was at first loathed and feared by the Chicago sports writers and fans, who thought his crazy antics—dying his hair chartreuse, showing up to events in a dress—would destroy team unity.  But Jackson recognized the value of creative redundancy and made Rodman’s eccentricities an asset to the team.  He bestowed upon Rodman the title of “Heyoka”—a Lakota Indian trickster spirit that was known to cross-dress, ride a horse backward, and generally mix things up in a way that made people see the world differently.  Rather than giving him another opportunity to rebel against authority, this was a title that gave Rodman something to embrace and recognize his role in the overall ecosystem of the team.  Jackson, who has coached the obvious choices for greatest basketball player ever—Jordan, Shaq, and Kobe—recently said that Rodman was the best player he ever coached.When considering the redundant assets in your world, it’s always worth asking, “who is my Heyoka?”

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