Change at Work

Emergency! How to Adapt & Respond with Laura Seraydarian

When in a crisis situation, take a moment to assess—and think about how you want to emerge from the situation

Laura Seraydarian, Founder of the Boulder Center for Resilience, is no stranger to emergency situations—she’s also worked as a first responder. Regardless of the context, there are a few best practices for anyone in a crisis:

  • Take a pause. Even when it’s life or death, take a moment to assess the situation. Are your assets, systems, structures and processes working? Or is there something that’s failing?
  • Build a common understanding. Particularly in a crisis, people have different understandings of what’s going on. Use stakeholder engagement to share experiences and align the team.
  • Adopt a regenerative approach. As an organization, ask—what’s shifting, what can we move around? How can we continue to grow?
  • Play the long game. Think about “bouncing forward”—what do you want the organization to look like after the crisis has passed?

Read the Transcript

Laura Seraydarian:

Hi, how are you?

Sarah Dickinson:

I’m very well. How’s Boulder this afternoon?

Laura Seraydarian:

It’s good. A little snowy outside, but good otherwise. Thank you for having me.

Sarah Dickinson:

No, of course. How are you doing today?

Laura Seraydarian:

I’m doing good. Yeah, I’m excited to be here and excited to share and yeah, thanks everyone for tuning in.

Sarah Dickinson:

Fantastic. Fantastic. So I think it’s a, as I said, sort of a really good segue and we had some perspective from Erin and Annie from the worlds of arts and research, academia, education, the education system with Erin as well. And you know, I think I’m really excited this afternoon to draw on Laura’s experience from the environmental side to the what that you spent many, many years in as a hydro-geologist as a teacher and then moving into more socially based work and now culminating in really the creation of the Boulder Center for Resilience. Before we dig in, can you set the scene a little bit for us in terms of your experience, Laura and maybe sort of like your journey to today just to introduce yourself?

Laura Seraydarian:

Yeah, sure. Well, I started off as a physical scientist and over my career I got more and more interested in some of the challenges that didn’t seem to have technical or scientific solutions. One experience in particular that I had when I was working in India, I was working on a water systems, working with water managers and to really assess the water market and trying to come up with solutions. So we were working with people in the Ministry of Environment, water infrastructure managers and communities. And so, I kind of had this moment where I was working in this Muslim community and one of the most impoverished areas in Indore, India and they are the kind of most downstream in the water system.

So you could say their situation would be one of the most difficult. And you know, the women in these communities were the ones collecting water and enlisting the children. So they were really the water managers for their community and it was kind of disorganized and they were going along and these women really came together and they decided that they wanted to organize. So they self organized and they decided that they were going to have a one woman at the end of each street, kind of these more of an alleyway with some lean-to structures, but their street no less.

And they were going to organize, they were going to tally, they use a little, they had a big rock at the end of the street and they used another rock to make tally marks of who was getting water and how to distribute it. And with the little local support from a local partner, they formed an NGO and came up with a system to not only get paid for their work but to be more organized. And so they were bringing in income or their community, providing them with more options. So I think seeing this ingenuity and this human spirit of resilience on such a fundamental level, even in the most desperate of situation really shifted things for me.

So really understanding that by using this local knowledge, by listening to the people that are on the ground day to day they really have the solutions if we can help empower them to do that. So I really shifted, I was going through a shift, but this was really profound for me and really looking more at that human focused kind of approach and a little less on the technical side. Technical solutions are still important, but this was my shift into that human centered work. So it’s kind of come to the culmination of the Boulder Center for Resilience, which is a combination of science and human centered work. And so we work with people to help them facilitate what they’re trying to accomplish.

Sarah Dickinson:

Incredible. Incredible. Well, let’s keep riffing on that. The… When we chatted yesterday, one of the things that struck me was how can we draw on your work as the resilience practitioner and not least also your experience as a first responder to kind of plot a bit of a path through the current chaos. Let’s pick up, first of all in terms of that human centeredness.

And you know, it’s something that we talk a lot about at Nobel and that initially what I’m picking up there is some… The initial art of sensing and getting to understand the situation, it’s variables. It can be, it can be very easy to respond right now in the panic, in the chaos as a leader of a team or within a team itself. And that ability, I think Rob was talking about it earlier, the ability to be present to the situation feels very, very significant but is also significantly impacted when emotions are so high. How do we make sense of all of this? Can you share some both experiences and practices?

Laura Seraydarian:

Yeah, I mean I think when it comes to sensing, I can speak a little bit from the kind of first responder piece and then I can speak a little bit more to my resilience work. So as a first responder I worked, it’s all volunteer, our rescue team here in Boulder County and you train, they’re very dialed in. But we, we do mountain rescues. I no longer do this, but I did it for seven years. And so when you’re in a first responder mode, you know you’re getting a call, there’s an emergency, it’s life or death potentially. And so you’re rushing to the scene, you’re grabbing your stuff, you’re getting there.

When you get there, everybody pauses, you take a pause and even when it’s life or death, that pause is super important, right? And so, you want to gain composure. You don’t want to show up to a scene completely frazzled. You know you’ve got potential patients there, family members, and so you really want to get grounded. Take that pause even if it’s two seconds. You know, some situations require longer pauses. But take that kind of quick pause and you’re really going, “Okay, assessing the scene safety. Is this safe for me to move forward?” Looking at situational awareness. So what is the situation and then communicating with your team before acting.

This can all happen in a very short period of time but, as a first responder, again, even when it’s life or death, that pause can make or break a situation. So it’s super important and we’ll talk a little at the end and kind of provide a tool to do that and we’ll share that at the end. I think when it comes to organizations, when we’re taking that pause, I mean I think pausing can be more challenging and intense situations cause I think a lot of us just want to respond and myself included, I still have to kind of remind myself to practice that pause.

But when we’re looking at in organizations and what’s going on for everyone right now it’s really you can do a quick scan. Again, it could be longer or shorter depending on what your current state status is. But rather of looking at like kind of scanning like what are your assets, what are our systems, and structures and processes? Are those working? Is there something that’s glaringly standing out that’s not working or is there something that really working well that we want to heighten? And then you can also be looking at is there something that’s working pretty well but we want to shift at five degrees.

So there’re pieces of that kind of checking in with your organization and how the people are doing and then checking in with yourself as a leader, how are you doing? Do you have a sense of this? We’re all kind of moving and so again, it can be done a number of levels, but I think we have the opportunity now to be building resilience in to our organizations and what we’re doing as we move forward. The more of that we have built in before a crisis, the easier it is to do that quick scan and kind of shift them and move. So again, really communication and connecting with your people who are on the ground are going to give you a lot of information.

Sarah Dickinson:

Yeah, yeah. I love that. I mean that came up so much this morning. I’m thinking about to Rachel’s talk from the ready set. How do we come down from our role as leaders and you know, look eye to eye, heart to heart with our frontline teams to really get an accurate sense of what’s happening for people. That human centered approach, listening and learning seems so paramount. Can you tell us a little bit more, maybe there’s another story in there as well in terms of the one you shared at the beginning, you wouldn’t have you coming in as an outsider, you would not have known that had you not got close to those women in the community and seeing their work in action. And I’m curious if there’s any other practices or examples that you’ve got in terms of that listening and learning from teams?

Laura Seraydarian:

Yeah, I mean… I sure, yeah. I think that whenever I would be working in a community or with an organization, it really, the goal we always had was trying to build a common understanding because a lot of times, particularly in a crisis and even when it’s not a crisis, a lot of people have different understandings of what’s going on. And especially right now with the news and I think they were talking earlier about how do you distinguish kind of the facts and the science and kind of ground in that.

So, building a common understanding together through like stakeholder engagement. For example, in a community we would do this, bringing people together in a room that might normally not be talking like we brought together high government officials and we brought these women from this community in there to have a conversation say, “You know, this is what’s happening for us”. And we saw these people’s faces going, “Wow. Like we didn’t really know”. Like on some level we knew. But when you’re in, maybe not in person, but virtually at this point connecting with people and kind of hearing what’s going on for them. You just learn so much about what’s happening and the people on the ground are going to have… That are working in this stuff day to day, are going to have innovation, they’re going to have ideas and they can support the leaders.

So the leader doesn’t need to be finding all of the answers right? Because they’re not going to have them. So it’s really bringing that team together and building that common understanding through a number of different ways that you can do that. But it’s really giving people a voice that don’t have… haven’t had one and then giving… providing yourself with a new perspective so you can move forward with more tools and information to make decisions.

Sarah Dickinson:

I love that. I mean, we’ll get to the personal piece at the end. But, taking that load off, not expecting yourself to have all those answers I think is a key takeaway there. I want to draw on your experience as an environmental… In the environment and looking at ecosystems that, what can we… I think we had from Annie that sort of these extraordinary times pool for sort of extra… will give us the opportunity for extraordinary creativity and imagination. And I love that provocation. I’m curious if we apply that lens to nature, which has its… Nature does resilience very, very well. You know, are there some examples of nature’s renewal cycle? It goes a little bit back to Rob’s opening opening piece as well that we can learn from right now.

Laura Seraydarian:

Yeah, I mean, I think generally speaking resilience, the field of resilience is modeled off of ecosystems science. So I’m very systems-based. It’s when you look at nature, how things are growing, regenerating. I think you had brought up the comment of after a fire, wild flowers bloom. And so, there is a process of regeneration and sometimes there’s loss in that. And in that last we looked to how can we begin again and in a different way. And I think it’s approaching things differently and nature certainly provides us a lot of examples of that.

I think that we have this regenerative piece in nature and we’re starting to see that more and more businesses are kind of bringing that into practice. And I think that it’s looking at the balance, the balance of your organization, what’s shifting, what can we move around? How can we continue to grow? And when we get to a point where we need to introduce something new, let’s look for that. And I think it’s about being curious, being really curious of what’s out there and allowing things to come to us instead of pushing, pushing forward. So much in a lot of ways. So how can we be more in balance with harmony in nature and regenerative practices in our business?

Sarah Dickinson:

Yeah, I was just looking at some comments here. I mean one of the things that’s been so inspiring, the water in Venice is clear now. There is hope and peace and joy and in seeing some of those things. I want to move from sensing into responding. But perhaps and what I learned from you yesterday, drawing on especially your background as a first responder and I learned a new term yesterday, ICS I’m going to get it wrong if I don’t read it. Incidence Command Systems, what can we learn from those in terms of that vital piece, which it feels like we’re in right now. If we move from sensing, into that adaptation. We’re in the pause mode and we’re coming up with a plan and I think that’s… I’d love to hear a little bit about your experiences there and what we can learn from the systems of first responders.

Laura Seraydarian:

Yeah, I can speak a little bit to that and then talk a little bit about kind of organizations. So ICS are intimate… I can’t even say the word myself. Incident command systems was something that was put in place around disasters so that we have operating procedures so that when something happens we know how to act. And so it’s a predetermined way to kind of assert authority and when there isn’t time to really have questions. So this is really set up in advance. Everyone’s trained, they understand the structure and they know their roles.

This works very well when everybody’s trained and on the same page there is space to move around in there and be innovative and that really… You know, ICS is like a federal kind of system and as you dive down into the actual individual teams that are actually doing this work, it obviously is going to be contextualized and there’s going to be different things happening.

So it holds a nice overall kind of command and control situation. And so it’s helpful when you’re in a crisis to know what to do and what your role is. I think with organizations, you know it’s very different. Most people don’t probably don’t have an ICS commanding control in place for the organization. There are some organizations that have done that contingency planning and have the things, some things in place they know to go to. And I think that when it comes to organizations and the leader asserting kind of that command and control, I think it’s very difficult to do, to be very in tune with our organization. There has to be a very robust flow of information from the organization, from across the organization.

So it kind of goes back to that same point is that we can learn from in uncertain times with these complex challenges. Our teams are really critical to draw on. They’re the ones that are going to help us move and shift in the changing times and they have ideas and innovations to contribute and they are the ones that are going to power the change that we need.

So I think one other point on the ICS, when I was working in a large… I was part of a team that responded to the 2013 floods and we were working under this ICS command structure. And at this point we were working with organizations we had never worked with before. The army was there, we were there. We were in a helicopter and getting dropped off somewhere and we couldn’t even communicate. We had different communication systems. So we couldn’t even communicate with the pilot to tell us, no, don’t drop us off on this whole hillside. We ended up getting dropped off in a completely wrong spot. So those command structures are helpful and the on the ground bottom up stuff is really key and really important for us to kind of keep in mind.

Sarah Dickinson:

Yeah. Yeah. I mean I’m thinking about Rachel the… you know, Rachel from Honey who had gone remote overnight. And what I’m hearing in both of your both of your experiences is the importance of shared language, shared tech under absolute clarity in terms of technology and also sort of a structure in terms of who’s on point to do what. And you know, it seems very, very simple and obvious. But it again, in times that are greatly chaotic, when emotions are high, just coming back to these basics is even more important.

Laura Seraydarian:

Yeah and I think you know there are ways that organizations can be setting things up because we are going to be seeing as we all are experiencing and I think we know at this point we’re going to be experiencing more of a frequency and increased frequency and intensity of extreme events and so knowing those point people and who to talk to and then really the communication with your teams is just number one.

Sarah Dickinson:

Yep. Yep. Okay. I’m going to ask you one more question and then we’re going to hit the floor with some questions that I can see already coming in. You know, we’ve gone from sensing, listening, and learning from teams. Really, you know, as a leader coming down, getting out into your community, getting out with your teams, seeing what’s working, drawing from, from their experiences. What we’ve just heard here is the importance of that pause, of putting a plan in place and striving for absolute clarity and really balancing. What I hear, Laura, is balancing that sort of command and control. You know, that piece is important, but, how can your teams, how can your organization also self-organized and you know, once it’s got that structure in place in terms of language, technology, roles and responsibilities.

I want to ask a final question about that sort of like third step, which is actually the response. What can you share about the act of responding or maybe scenario planning that was, that was another area that we talked about yesterday, through the lens of resilience?

Laura Seraydarian:

Yeah, so I mean resilience building is really a long game and it goes beyond an emergency. It’s definitely something in an emergency, if you have that in place you’re going to be better off and you can build resilience during an emergency, certainly. And I think that as we’re preparing to respond or as we’re responding, we really want to be thinking about kind of bouncing forward. We use that term in the kind of disaster community. So we don’t want to build back the way we were. We don’t want to go, “Oh no, everything is a mess. Let’s put it back the way it was” and in this situation we’re obviously being really pushed and asked to, we have to do it differently. It’s very obvious in this situation. So how do we kind of bounce forward, I’m going to build back better?

So this is an opportunity to kind of build in kind of some safe failures. So an example of that would be like testing out ideas in a small way, building some flexibility into your systems, being inclusive and then kind of building that muscle memory of the pause. So, if we can pause and then adapt and then respond using our teams, I think we can. The number of plausible futures, like in scenario planning that you were talking about is really distinct to every organization and individual and it really depends on how diversified you are kind of potential pathways that you’re open to and really your ability to be flexible and adapt. So really the more options we allow ourself, the more choices we will have and those choices or important, especially when things kind of go South. If that answers your question.

Sarah Dickinson:

Yeah, no, absolutely. So let’s go. I think we’ve got time for, for one question, I’m looking, there’s a bunch of really good ones. I like this one. What’s the best way to get from scarcity to creativity?

Laura Seraydarian:

From scarcity to creativity? That’s a great question. I spent a lot of time kind of working on this. I mean I think we have… To get from scarcity to creativity? While there’s things that my teacher who I have multiple teachers that advise me, has taught me about this kind of generosity loop. And so when we’re looping, an example of looping with someone is like you and I are talking right now, Sarah, and so like I’m kind of feeding off your energy and you’re kind feeding off mine, right?

And sometimes when you’re in a conversation, there’s a little bit of like a, “Oh, it’s not quite flowing”, but if you can kind of breathe into, “Oh, I’m kind of receiving Sarah and what she’s telling me and I’m kind of putting my energy back out”. So through kind of like, it’s a little woo woo, but this is stuff is really important. That kind of energetic kind of looping, whether it’s through generosity, whether you’re helping somebody out or whether it’s through… God, there’s a number of different ways. But yeah, really the generosity is one of the biggest pieces. So you’re kind of leaping that out. The more generous we are, the more flow we have with the people around us and what we’re doing that really spurs creativity.

Sarah Dickinson:

Yeah. Yeah. One more question and I’m going to answer this question with, with an ask an additional ask. So Jess had asked, how do you, how do you personally stay calm? And I think this would be a great way to wrap up our session today with… You mentioned at the very beginning a sematic method, which I know is part of your work at the center. You know, how do we… we’ve talked throughout the day about practical methods to get organized, create calm in chaos with… You know, create, calm amid chaos on our teams. As we start to think about leadership, the sematic work, getting… reminding and reconnecting to our bodies, which are in a fight and freeze and flight mode right now is so, so important. Can I ask you to take us home with one of the methods you use with your clients?

Laura Seraydarian:

Sure. So you know, we started off talking about sentience. And so again, especially in a conference like this and we’re getting a lot of information in the world right now, we’re getting a lot of information thrown at us. How can we take a pause? And so I want to do a short little body sensing exercise with us and then I’m going to have Sarah throw a link in the chat so that there’s some kind of followup there.

So yeah, I mean for myself, I do this, it’s kind of taking a pause. I’m going to invite us all to, I’ll walk us through it and Sarah if you’ll join me too and kind of take in a pause together. So you know, kind of we want to feel into our body. At the end of the day it’s our bodies that are really… Our nervous systems that are really dictating how we’re going to be creative, how we’re going to be open. So, okay. So we’re going to kind of just, I invite you to close your eyes. I’m going to keep mine open and just take a deep breath. We really just want to check in with our bodies.

So this isn’t meant to fix anything or change anything. It’s just to notice with what’s there. So kind of checking in with our neck and kind of feel into that and your shoulders and your chest. That tends to be my place that gets tight. So I’m just noticing, okay, it feels a little tight and kind of go through the rest of your body, your belly, your legs, your feet. And when you find a place that feels a little bit, it might be tight, it might be sore, kind of whatever that feeling is. Really take a moment and take three big breaths, just breathing into that area.

And you may notice that things shift. If they don’t shift, that’s okay and this is something you can do and you can take a minute or two to kind of do on your own. I think it really helps us connect with what’s happening in our body. It gets us out of being so outward and really focusing inward and I don’t know what people’s experience was like. Sarah, what was your experience with that?

Sarah Dickinson:

I think I need three more breaths.

Laura Seraydarian:

Yes. And I was trying to be conscious of time, I feel, yeah [crosstalk 00:24:55].

Sarah Dickinson:

I appreciate that. No, I mean, what I’m taking away is just the absolute value, not just value the necessity of this. We are, we are so up here right now and you know, the overload of information and the collective heightened energy of the world and each other right now is something else. And so, I encourage all of us and thank you for Laura for sharing your experience, sharing your methods so generously and… yeah, wonderful.

Laura Seraydarian:

Yeah, thank you so much. I would also invite people to kind of spend some time, take a minute by yourself and do that. We’re going to include it in the link, a series of fear melters which are amazing and we’re all, everyone is experiencing some state of fear right now. It’s taught to me by Rebecca Folsom and her teacher is Katie Hendricks from the Hendricks Institute. So, we’ll share that link and this is something where you can go and do the body sensing on your own time, and then go in and do the fear melters with Sam, they’re pretty fun and I do them all the time and our dog gets really excited too, so it’s definitely a win.

Sarah Dickinson:

Fantastic. Fantastic. I’m going to put that in right now and say a final thank you, Laura for joining us here today.

Laura Seraydarian:

Yeah. Thank you so much. Thanks everyone for tuning in.

Sarah Dickinson:

Amazing.

Published March 30, 2020

You might also like