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Defining Organizational Resilience

Small plant growing in desert

The rush to re-establish organizations as pandemic restrictions are lifted can be characterized in a number of ways, one of these being the increased use of resilience as a label.

I recently attended a webinar dedicated to supply chain activity, a topic which is of course central to how organizations operate and how long they survive. What struck me, as happens routinely, is how narrowly the resilience label is applied, and the lack of interest in seeking to ensure a common understanding.

If the boards of organizations are to take us seriously, as practitioners and students of resilience, then we must find a way of uniting around a common definition and approach to the topic. This is what has driven me to write a book, and this is what forms the basis for the initial chapters in The Organizational Resilience Handbook.

The easiest way to appreciate the significance of this point, and also to understand the scale of the challenge, is to list some of the detail associated with the current position.

Organizational resilience strategy

Organizational resilience is a strategic concept. As such, it cannot simply be created by adding together individual sub-elements or potential components against which the resilience label is applied.

Leaders understand very well that this is not how strategy is created – fundamentally, strategy is a top-down activity. This is not to undermine or diminish the importance of components such as crisis management or contingency planning, but if you believe that operational resilience or business continuity provide the foundation for resilience (and that a few other elements simply need to be added on), then you are likely to be engaging with people at an operational or tactical level on the subject and the prize of influencing strategy will have escaped you.

It is also important to appreciate the relationship between resilience and risk. The reality is that resilience is a function of the way risks are managed. Accepting that resilience is a strategic topic, it is strategic risk which needs to be our focus.

Risk provides the context within which strategy is executed and knowing what risks the organiszation actually faces (versus what it might be comfortable with) is critical in allowing the board to confirm the resilience stance it wishes to adopt.

To ask if the organization should have such a thing as a ‘resilience risk’ only has meaning if the board has already confirmed its approach to and ambitions for resilience.

Organizational resilience as a label

It is worth exploring in more detail how the resilience label is applied in practice. The label of resilience is applied routinely to colleagues and people in general, as ‘personal resilience’.

Although it can be aligned with wider considerations of mental wellbeing and organizational performance, more often than not the focus of personal resilience is restricted to stress events and an individual’s ability to cope with them.

However, the reality we experience when thinking about resilient people we know is that resilience is much more than this. Resilient people are often able to evidence success in relation to their chosen field; they can point to lessons they have learned and to how they have altered their behaviour as a result.

Importantly, resilient people are usually those who have developed and grown in some significant way.

This view of resilience is essential not just because it highlights just how narrowly the label is often applied, but also because it encourages us to think again about resilience when applied in an organizational context.

Just as with ‘personal resilience’, when considering resilience at an organizational level we need to abandon the idea that we are simply referring to events and how they are dealt with.

Resilient organizations are constantly re-inventing themselves in order to maintain a competitive position and these are organizations which demonstrate a willingness to learn. Resilient organizations recognize the importance of their interconnectedness, they possess the strength and depth necessary to grow and they can deliver on promises made to shareholders and others.

Leaders of successful organizations

We need to listen carefully to the leaders of successful organizations – ie. real-world exemplars - in order to understand what resilience is actually about.

When leaders of these organizations describe achievement or the enduring nature of their organization they routinely do so by reference to strength, competitiveness, reshaping and growth, and not to operational elements, such as service continuity or cybersecurity.

If we accept that resilience is truly a strategic concept and one that should be applied in a broad, whole-organization way, as outlined above, the boardroom is precisely where we should be seeking to discover the detail of the organization’s resilience capability and performance.

So, how can practitioners and board members learn to appreciate resilience within the unique context of their own organization? Well, The Organizational Resilience Handbook takes a practical and progressive view of the subject and introduces the kind of modelling and assessment techniques so often lacking in management literature.

Resilience determines how the organization operates and how it is able to get things done, and it is this relationship which is so vividly exposed by crisis events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many, the post-pandemic period is likely to be tougher than even the most pessimistic forecasts have suggested to date and the case study organizations of the mid-2020s and beyond will be those able to demonstrate strength and evidence growth, and those capable of reshaping in order to secure a competitive position.