When things go awry, and the need for resilient systems

There’s an old saying attributed to Dwight Eisenhower, that “plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” The idea is that on the battlefield, as with life in general, things seldom go exactly as planned. But the process of figuring out what could happen, what you’d like to see happen, and how you can deal with possibilities, allows you to continue toward your objectives despite uncertainty.

I’ve been thinking of this lately in the context of resilient systems. In my household, things often don’t go exactly as planned, but I feel like lately we’ve been able to roll with a fair number of things without total chaos. I’ve been analyzing what sort of resiliency is in place (so I don’t accidentally, like, lose it or something).

For instance, our house wifi was out for a week (actually 170 hours, not 168, but who’s counting…). Verizon customer service rep #1 told us it was a widespread outage, and we got updates on when it would be fixed — that then kept changing. Finally, Verizon customer service rep #2 said this was wrong, and it was just us. A tech came out on Friday and determined that the cable had been cut…by the lawn guys who’d been aerating around that time. While this is all rather maddening, the upside is we now have a temp line until a permanent one gets put in.

How did our systems respond to this? We could use cell data on our phones, so immediate email/texting was fine. My husband wound up going into his office more frequently. I figured out various “other” offices — Starbucks, the library, a friend’s house. I also got in the habit of asking the older kids each day if they had anything they needed to submit. The goal was for them not to remember this at 9 p.m. when there are fewer options (though someone later pointed out that we could have gone and sat on the library steps — they probably don’t turn the Wifi off overnight).

We are trading in our old van and getting a new van this week. Very exciting! Unfortunately, the old van just got a flat tire. So we are down a vehicle until we figure out how the dealer wants us to deal with this. But there’s resiliency in the system — we have three vehicles kind of for this reason. So I rewrote the schedule for Monday to get a ride to/from somewhere I needed to go (our nanny will take my car to drive kids around). I also asked someone I was meeting for lunch on Tuesday to come to a restaurant I can walk to.

Another schedule change — though a more positive one: My 14-year-old sent me an email on Wednesday that he was going to be running sound for the school play. This involved staying after school Thursday, Friday, Monday and Wednesday, and then being at performances Thursday-Saturday of the next weekend. The four after school practices are fine — he can always take the activity bus, which is just a major plus for schedule resiliency with the middle and high school students. It is built in back up. Sometimes we drive but we don’t have to. Going to/from the shows will involve some more logistics but this is one reason we have built in later hours for our nanny on Thursday — since I’m almost always at choir from 7-9, we have another driver in case my husband isn’t around or we have multiple things going on (which will be the case this week…)

A more sudden instance of things going awry: This morning, my husband left with the 16-year-old at 7:05 to drive him to the high school, then they called at 7:10 or so to report they were coming back. A car was on fire at the bottom of our street (the driver was out, and unhurt, and was already on the phone with the fire department —  who got there very quickly). As there is no other way out of this no-outlet street, they turned around and came back. We waited 20 minutes or so, and then my husband left with the three older kids (we weren’t sure what the bus situations would be) – the fire was out and they could go around and so he brought all of them to school and came back here for an 8 a.m. call instead of going into his office (good that wifi is back). Only the 16-year-old was late (I filled out the tardy form online).

Anyway — we have experienced limited chaos for a few reasons. One is flexible schedules — my husband and I can both work from home when we need to and we don’t have set hours. On transportation, there is the back-up of a third car and the activity bus. There is also the back-up in general of a third person — having more hours of childcare than we might strictly need. On some level all this is just “resources,” which are totally not universal, though it’s taken me time to figure out how to *use* resources to make life smoother. That part is not automatic at all. There are community resources (the library, Starbucks). I’m also realizing that having older kids helps limit chaos as well — we can leave the younger two with the older three. The older three can stay home alone and let themselves into the house if need be. This makes the schedule in general a lot more flexible.

Though my husband just sent me a text that he hadn’t signed the 8-year-old up for the next season of swim and there may not be any practice times available…so we shall see how this all shakes out…

Photo: Fall scene, but not from this fall

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