What Paw Patrol Teaches Us About Resilience
By Jeanette Kwek
“Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” — Winston Churchill
If you have ever watched any episode of popular children’s cartoon Paw Patrol, you would tend to agree with Churchill. On any given day in Adventure Bay, one of its hapless citizens (or its easily flustered mayor and her purse chicken Chickaletta) will get him/herself into some kind of highly-predictable and easily-solved pickle. Their first, instinctive reaction will be to call the Paw Patrol. A fearless bunch of puppies led by 10 year-old boy wonder Ryder, the Paw Patrol is Adventure Bay’s answer to any crisis. Your kitten is stuck on the bell tower? Call the Paw Patrol. You need to harvest a thousand pumpkins before the storm rolls in? Just “yelp for help”. Your submarine is stuck at the bottom of the sea? Adventure Bay’s communications network is so superb that your phone call will reach Ryder, playing video games with his pups in the gang’s headquarters, the Lookout.
Lesson #1: A single point of failure is a bad idea.
“What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives every thing its value.” — Thomas Paine
The problem is that the Paw Patrol is too good at its job. If, like many a parent of young children, you have been forced to binge watch Paw Patrol, you will realise that none of Adventure Bay’s citizens has any problem-solving capability. One enterprising boy and six enthusiastic pups (plus a growing number of auxiliary pups for difficult jungle or mountain-related problems, because Paw Patrol believes in the ASEAN Plus model of doing things) have cornered the market on dealing with all the catastrophes that can befall a modern(ish) city. And the Paw Patrol always comes through, applying quick wits and a range of technology that real city planners would give their left arms to possess.
It took me a while to realise why this bothered me so much. (Look, it’s a children’s cartoon. I tend to turn off my brain when watching.) At first, I thought it was a problem of scale, of proportionality. There’s clearly a difference in difficulty between rescuing a kitten and rescuing a submarine stuck at the bottom of the sea. Yet the solution to both is to turf out a couple of pups and ta-dah! Problem solved. Then I realised that lack of differentiation was pointing to the real cause of my discomfort — Ryder and the pups are a single point of failure for Adventure Bay. If Ryder gets sent to summer camp or boarding school or the pups have the flu, the city’s problems don’t get solved. Period.
In the real world, of course, we rarely allow ourselves to be caught by a single point of failure. Contingency and business continuity plans, sharpened during our pandemic experience, ensure that at minimum, organisations and systems can continue to function even if a crisis unwittingly lops off key decision-makers. But the bigger question is how an organisation not just survives but thrives in difficult circumstances — becomes antifragile, to borrow Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s phrase.
Lesson #2: You need a diversity of response functions, including spares held in reserve…or hiding in plain sight
“No job is too big, no pup is too small” — Ryder
Paw Patrol partially answers that question for us. Another thing that will strike you is how flexibly Ryder deploys the Paw Patrol and its Plus pups to tackle any situation. He rarely throws the whole team at any problem in the first instance, trying a targeted two-pup team before realising they need additional tools to clean up the mess. Sometimes he needs to tap on the specialised capabilities of affiliates (for instance, Everest for snow-related disasters or Tracker for jungle-related ones) or even civilian resources (Captain Turbot and his ship the Flounder are equally likely to be part of the problem or the solution). He is also some kind of child-genius with technology, building new tech just in time to quickly and easily deal with that precise new problem that comes their way. I suppose in a children’s cartoon, it is comforting that there is a solution to every problem, and a happy ending to every story.
But in real life, resilience is hard work, and requires concerted investment of time, energy and resources, both before and after crises. New and targeted solutions are rare, perhaps deservedly so, and rarely timely. My key takeaway from Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s book Risk: A User’s Guide was that we frequently focus on the wrong thing. We can’t predict with pinpoint accuracy which of a thousand million things could go wrong and plunge us into disaster, but we expend so much effort in trying that it looks like we think we can. This is also why most futurists worth their salt have one slide in their deck that basically says “we don’t have a crystal ball”. Instead, we should be focusing on the question of which levers, processes, structures and capabilities we can develop ahead of the inevitable next crisis so that we have options to respond. In the local context, I’m reminded of Singapore’s framework for Total Defence, which calls on every Singaporean to contribute to strengthen its ability to deal with any crisis. More broadly, governments and organisations will attempt to repurpose existing resources to address new needs, or tap on resources in their transactional environments (where they have some influence) through partnerships and alliances.
Lesson #3: Leadership is critical
“The only time a leader makes a decision in a crisis is right up front. They make draconian, rapid decisions to create breathing space downstream.” — Dave Snowden
For a 10 year-old child, Ryder is unnaturally confident in his decision-making. Every crisis begins with crisply-uniformed pups lined up for a mission briefing, where Ryder outlines clear and precise instructions on how pups are to tackle the challenge ahead. His first moves are invariably triage (“Rocky, keep that bridge from collapsing!”), to buy some time for a longer-term, safer solution to be deployed. As events unfold, you see Ryder unhesitatingly making snap decisions to redirect his pups or bring new pups into the fray.
Dave Snowden’s Cynefin framework, developed to help decision-makers understand the context in which they operate, recognises that different approaches are called for in different contexts. Ryder and the pups are almost always in a crisis situation, where leaders should act quickly, and adapt their responses rapidly based on feedback — exactly as we see this wunderkind perform. Ryder has also been pretty good at rolling this learning downhill. One of my favourite episodes (look, when you’ve been a captive audience this long, you have to have SOME coping mechanisms) involves Ryder getting into a spot of trouble, and Chase the police pup having to lead the puppy pack in a daring rescue. Chase asks himself — “What would Ryder do?” — at first, but when this imagined Ryder fails him, realises he needs to figure out his own solution based on what he has at hand, and saves the day. It’s one of my favourite episodes because it illustrates Lesson #1 — Ryder is gone!! What are we to DO?!?! — but also because it demonstrates Ryder has done such a good job teaching his pups how to solve problems, and they’re able to remember this under pressure.
In less fraught conditions, leaders might take a more measured approach, using small-scale experiments to determine fruitful directions, and working flexibly within light and limited constraints to produce desired outcomes. After the first flush of COVID crisis, we saw a return to more centralised decision-making and an expansion of government capability as societies adapted to rapidly-changing conditions. Whether big government is back to stay or if we will see evolution to yet other forms of (decentralised) governance as crisis recedes but complexity remains is yet to be determined. For instance, we may see more societies and economies develop polycentric governance systems, which have the side effect of building multiple nodes for coordinating decision-making according to different needs. (A stroll down memory lane, otherwise known as my Twitter feed, reminds me that I first tried to think through polynodal systems at #espas19, neatly framed by Florence Gaub’s wonderful thinkpiece.)
Lesson #4: Trust is key
Of course, the corollary to the Paw Patrol being called on to do everything is that every person and animal in Adventure Bay (and its environs) trusts the pups implicitly, and generally do whatever the pups tell them to without question. This comes in handy as Chase is frequently flinging safety cones from his 4x4 without explanation to rapidly redirect traffic away from runaway boulders or Mayor Humdinger’s evil schemes.
Out here in the real world, the trust members of the public have in institutions such as governments and banks is critical to the smooth execution of a wide range of public policies. Trust is partly rooted in governance capability (i.e. a government’s reliability and ability to act) and perceptions of integrity, impartiality, accountability and fairness. Other dimensions of trust result from cultural and societal characteristics, a shared sense of identity, or perhaps shared objectives or visions for the future.
The OECD’s 2021 study of trust in governments, involving respondents from 22 OECD member states, suggests that many governments may be seen as unresponsive to feedback, and that people may not feel they can be involved or have a stake in their society’s future. Many disruptions threaten to undermine public trust in institutions — and our trust in each other. The Centre for Strategic Futures has considered the impact of some of these disruptions in a meditative essay. (Why yes, I’m very proud of my team, how kind of you to ask.) Deputy Head Seema Gail Parkash points out that
“Increasingly, daily lived realities are calling into question traditional narratives around meritocracy, hard work and a life of dignity, if not success. They are also raising important questions around what we can and should expect from one another, and what we owe one another. There are growing calls for fundamental changes to the socioeconomic compact, using the power of the state to protect the economic livelihoods and bargaining power of labour.”
At Sunday Mass a couple of weekends ago, the Gospel reading was:
“One who is faithful in very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” — Luke 16: 10–11
How very difficult it is to be faithful in little, in these troubled times. And yet, how incredibly important it is that we continue to do so, lest we lose our opportunity to be faithful with the true riches in the end.
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Jeanette Kwek is Head at the Centre for Strategic Futures.
The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Centre for Strategic Futures or any agency of the Government of Singapore.