Operational Resilience and the First Rule

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BLUF – First Rule and Past Tense are basic mental frameworks to help us understand life via two sides of the same coin – mortality. On the one hand is a biological imperative to perpetuate life as we know it. The other holds recognition of needs beyond the self, when we are taken out of the equation. Together these two offer useful perspective on decision-making. First Rule is the default consideration for operational resilience.


Travelling to Minneapolis a couple of weeks ago, I faced an issue commonly faced by those preferring red-eye flights. A delay of the 0635 flight to 1233. It was unclear what caused it. Illness? Maintenance? Act of God? 

Three hours later I managed to squeeze into an oversold regional flight – scraping in as the last standby. Watching the semi-feral behaviour exhibited by the other stand-bystanders in their mad rush to board an aircraft capable of plummeting towards certain Doom gave me pause. 

It seemed as though people are quick to forget two premises of humanity and decision-making: the First Rule and the Past Tense.

The First RuleDon’t Die

Nassim Taleb calls it the First Rule of Risk. I call it just the First Rule. It underlies, well … everything. 

You want to get the job? Don’t die. Deciding on where to eat? Don’t die. Want to save humanity from itself? Don’t bloody die. I think this should likely replace our good-byes and fare-wells. It’s far more accurate in our basic hopes regarding the other party’s departure.

It’s not the physical sense of death we are talking about (although it is a priority), there are a million other little deaths we encounter in day to day. Emotional deaths, mental meltdowns, occupational fails – all these are shocks to our internals, resulting often in physical effects. Our evolution being unsuited to our modern stress environments, our biological systems are regularly compromised and sometimes unable to handle these small shocks. 

The First Rule reminds us to stay alive, stay in the game. In other words, to take only those risks which do not destroy us thus – allowing us to continue to be in the game. 

This has applicability in organisational decision-making, especially in respect of operational resilience and risk appetite. 

When assessing risk appetite and processes underpinning the organisation’s operational resilience, the design of the most critical processes should be by default fail-safe. Rather like the A-10 Warthog.

The question – “what happens if this fails, and everything in our business crashes?” – should be asked of all critical processes. 

The question should push us to ask how the processes serve key business functions and stakeholders. What if those functions are shut down and cannot serve the stakeholders (see Colonial Pipeline)? What is the bypass or the back-up plan? How will we reboot so to speak? What if the locus of control lies outside our organisation?

Organisations using CTI well recognise the CTI team is often the first one to surface risks to operational continuation. They are also often best placed to point out how critical processes may be failing at being fail-safe. CTI is an important if somewhat invisible component of operational resilience, often only noticed when absent or when not functioning as expected, a bit like connective tissue (even when expectation was not fully recognised before the malfunction so to speak).

What about the Past Tense then? A point for further consideration:

How about we all practise the First Rule this week? Reflect on risks taken or avoided, decisions made or delayed, and reconvene next post when I promise to be back with my thoughts on Past Tense.


One thought on “Operational Resilience and the First Rule

  1. Pingback: Past Tense – the Art of Being Dead – Maelstrom Advantage

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