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The suspension bridge is a great example of a flexible system

Improving Systems and Habits

Scott Miker is the author of several books that describe how to use systems and habits to improve.  This free blog provides articles that to help understand the principles related to building systems.  

The suspension bridge is a great example of a flexible system

Scott Miker

Bridges have been used for centuries to cross over some type of obstacle, like a ravine or river.  Over the decades we have developed more advanced systems to get us over these obstacles.

One of the developments was the suspension bridge.  These types of bridges have been used for over 600 years.  But what is fascinating is that they tackle a problem with a creative, systematic solution that many linear thinking strategies would miss.

In a Scientific America article, the author states, “When all the materials and circumstances are the same, suspension bridges can span longer distances than simple beam bridges.”

Suspension bridges tackle a key leverage point in the system of bridges – the rigidity.  By tackling this, they change the way we approach bridges. 

In the case of earthquakes, we don’t make bridges stronger and less flexible so they can withstand the movement.  We create a system that allows for movement.  We change rigidity to flexibility. 

Think about the last time you saw a hurricane broadcast on TV.  The winds are so strong that you likely saw trees being bent over, almost touching the ground.  You also probably saw buildings start to lose their structure once the winds reach a point where they are not strong enough to stay in place and push against the force of the winds.

Many small trees can withstand these winds by being flexible. They go with the wind and move without breaking.  Instead of being so strong and rigid that they can fight against the winds, they go with the winds.

About a month ago we had a terrible storm come through Ohio.  Tornados touched down and even where no tornado was sighted, the winds were intense.  Because Ohio doesn’t regularly succumb to these intense winds, many trees couldn’t take the pressure and snapped right in half.  If they had been of the flexible variety, such as a palm tree, they would have likely bent with the wind instead of holding firm and resisting it.  This showed the incredible value in being flexible over being rigid. 

One thing that was interesting from this storm was that much of the damage was from the largest, strongest trees, not the small weak ones.  If we think we need to meet strength with strength this shouldn’t be.  The winds should have ripped apart the small, fragile trees instead of the strong, firm ones.  But this wasn’t the case. 

Bridge builders started to realize that they too have to think differently about strength.  By building flexibility into the bridge, they can have a bridge that withstands more wind, or the vibrations of an earthquake, better than a rigid bridge.

But this is counter to how we think.  We think of a politician that holds his or her position regardless of what others say as strong.  Being inflexible is seen as strength and a politician that changes his or her perspective based on new information is seen as weak. 

We see strength as those willing to stand firm and stand up against others.  Rigid and strength have almost become synonyms despite the fact that change is now a constant and we are always gaining new insights.  In constant change we have to be better prepared to adapt. 

The suspension bridge is a great example of using flexibility to overcome force.  Instead of looking to rigidity for more strength we saw that we can accomplish our goal and withstand even more force with a little flexibility. 

When you are crafting your own systems and habits improvement routines, think about this.  A better system might be one that accounts for some variation and can handle change with flexibility instead of holding firm.