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3 Lessons in Business Resilience from Easter Island

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3 Lessons in Business Resilience from Easter Island

A Unique Ecosystem

Easter Island gives me a unique opportunity to draw valuable and relevant conclusions for business resilience and organisations generally in today’s complex and uncertain world. The striking landscapes and stone Moai on Easter Island make for a memorable and thought-provoking experience like few others. I recently had the good fortune to visit this unique place, first populated by Polynesian voyagers by crossing 4000 miles of ocean, via a mere 6-hour flight from Santiago, Chile. Isolated by ocean, the island is a virtual petri dish which allows for observation of resilience of a completely unconnected system. I found it deeply impactful seeing first-hand the consequences of system fragility created by optimisation, the clarion call of cost cutting management.

The Journey from the Past

The landscape I saw was very different from that which met those first to colonise Rapa Nui as the island is known in the local language. A previously sub-tropical wooded island was now hills of rolling grass, rock strewn fields and with only 45 separate species of native flora, reminding me of the hills of Laos which are still defoliated from Agent Orange. So, what caused the 22mile long previously uninhabited island’s population to rise to some 20,000 and then collapse to around 100 in 1887?

The settler’s community prospered and grew, adapting to their unique environment. With rainwater the only source of fresh water, the very visible rock-strewn fields are actually mulched with volcanic pumice which acts like sponges providing surprisingly good irrigation. They developed belief and social systems based on ancestors, the Moai being the visible remains to today’s visitor. With no metal tools on the island they made a pragmatic and collaborative choice of Moai carved from softer stone using harder stone and then moved them across the island from a single quarry where the softer stone was available.

As the increasingly agricultural economy grew, environmental degradation appears to have been deliberately undertaken, much like the slash and burn policies I have seen in recent years in Asia and similarly the Amazon. Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo suggested the accidental introduction of rats by the settlers might alternatively have been the primary cause of the rapid decline of forests. Whatever the cause, as the last trees were felled, the island became a closed ecosystem as ships could no longer be built.

As to the results?

There are two hypotheses, both catastrophic but the same end, including war, disease, slavery and death of almost every man, woman and child of the 20,000 population.

The traditional view first suggested by Thor Heyerdahl and more recently Jared Diamond is of ecocide leading to famine and breakdown of social order. The following civil war, overthrowing of the Moai as each village was levelled and finally leading to a complete new belief and social system being established.

A more recent view is even more disturbing, with disease and social order breakdown following the discovery by the Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen on Easter day in 1722. Over the following 2 centuries these included diseases such as syphilis, forced labour, outright slavery, and the nail in the coffin being the colonial policies of sheep farming and ghettoization of the residual inhabitants in a single town.

Insights for Business Resilience today.

The 3 lessons for organisations I draw from my visit are fairly clear whichever hypothesis you subscribe to. Optimisation on its own is a strategy which can lead to catastrophic consequences.

Inward focus on efficiencies must not be at the expense of the outwards view in order to be resilient in the long term. New entrants to a market can prove catastrophic to incumbents who are inward looking. The disruptions are likely to be unexpected in timing, with novel features and can act cumulatively or explosively on the fragilities of the organisation created in the drive for an optimum in a static or slow-moving environment.

Growth led by short term and localised tactical decision making may ultimately destroy the very ecosystem on which it was founded. There are often unintended consequences of introducing change, especially to optimise, in closed systems that are not always obvious at first. Local leaders necessarily make decisions based on what is best for their unit and are incentivised to do so, however these may create systemic risk to the organisation as a whole.

Innovation is essential to grow and often necessity is the mother of invention in the face of disruption or adversity. The settlers made use of pumice for irrigation and today’s islanders make a living from their unique history and environment. We have many opportunities which are yet to be discovered, however sustainable and regenerative business strategies are essential in the future as we are unable to continue to consume the worlds natural resources at same rate as previous generations.

In Conclusion

The questions I ask are; will we continue to optimise as we see it today without considering the future and continue blindly with business as usual? Or will we learn the lessons of maintaining outward views, incentivising the correct decisions and creating sustainable innovation strategies to build resilience into our organisations?

Further Reading

Diamond, J. (2005). Collapse. New York: Viking.
Hunt, T. and Lipo, C. (2011). The statues that walked. New York: Free Press.
Peiser, B. (2005). From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui. Energy & Environment, 16(3), pp.513-540.
World Wildlife Fund. (2016). Rapa Nui subtropical broadleaf forests | Ecoregions | WWF. [online] Available at:

The author, Paul Hancock is a Resilience Consultant at 360 Resilience Ltd.



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