Monday, November 18, 2013


Indulge me for a minute as I complain about something that is clearly a first world problem: communication breakdowns between me and my communications provider (the irony is not lost).

After years of paying a ridiculous amount of money to have multiple carriers provide what has become a basic service in our society - communication services - I chose consolidation: a non-diversified, less-resilient strategy, but much, much cheaper. When ordering the service, I thought I had asked all the right questions - how much will it cost now, how much in the future, what channels will I get, how fast will my internet be, can I keep my old number, etc. I did what I thought was my due diligence to make sure I was ordering what I needed/wanted. But the cost I was quoted did not include some services, such as HDTV, that they consider to be an upcharge and I consider to be "basic," so much so that I didn't inquire about it assuming it was included and they didn't offer this information as the upcharge that they consider it to be. This lack of transparency about the baseline assumptions of our conversation lead to a communication breakdown and annoyance on the part of the consumer, namely me.

This problem illustrates a key point for resilience in human systems: one of the most common forms of disturbance in our business and economic systems involve communication breakdowns, and mitigating these disturbances is key to resilience of those systems. 

Communication disturbances occur frequently and most of the time have little impact on company operations, but these seemingly small annoyances can accumulate and cause trouble for a company in aggregate. I may be able to brush off this one instance of not being told the whole story, but if this becomes a pattern of upcharges that greatly affect how much I pay for this service, my provider will lose my business and likely many others. This would represent a threat to the long-term survival and resilience of this company's business. 

Using the biomimetic process of looking to nature for inspiration, we can look to collective animal behavior and swarm theory to deduce that transparent communication strategies and common baseline system-wide rules are one of the building blocks for resilient communication in organizational systems. 
"self-propelled particles" via wikipedia
Swarm intelligence in collective animal behavior allows relatively simple creatures, such as individual birds, ants, or bees, to form complex, adaptive, decentralized flocks and swarms based on simple, system-wide rules for responding to local information. This collective behavior allows the group to maintain cohesion in the face of disturbance, such as predation, by continually broadcasting their location (information transparency) and maintaining a consistent distance from the others (dynamic response) while avoiding predators (responding to locally available information). 

So how could my issue with my communications provider have been avoided? 

By looking to swarm theory and nature's communication strategies as guide, this miscommunication could have been avoided by simply incorporating information transparency into their sales and marketing protocols
  • Because every customer will have differing assumptions for what is considered a standard service, sales associates should be equipped with a series of questions that seek to understand the customer's needs and can recommend a package that is right for them.
  • The recommended package should clearly spell out what is and is not included in the service and include consistent, transparent pricing information. 
  • This information should be available in a variety of locations and formats, including online, over the phone, and via marketing materials. 
If I were to sit down with their sales strategist, I'm sure we could come up with many more solutions that address communication issues and begin to embed resilience into their communication structures, making their customers happier and their business model more resilient to future disturbances. I acknowledge that their business model is based on beating their competitors on price and that the practice of upcharging is likely crucial to their bottom line. In the end, however, they are in the business of customer service and happy customer that maintain their service are critical to their long-term survival beyond their immediate growth needs.

Can you think of an instance where a communication failure proved costly to your business? 

By looking to nature, you can begin to dream up solutions that allow your business or organization to be more resilient to disturbances, even minor ones.

To learn more about resilience as applied to human systems, check out our "BEND, Don't Break" Naturally Inspired Resilience Workshop at


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