Visualising organisational resilience

Resilience

I’ve been trying to summarise organisational resilience into a form that can be visualised for some of the people who I’m working with. The key has been to summarise the thinking on resilience as succinctly as possible.

Apart from the diagram you can see, the text below attempts to give concise answers to the following questions

  1. What is it (Resilience)?
  2. Why should my organisation care about resilience?
  3. Why is detailed planning not working anymore (if it ever did)?
  4. What’s the recipe for resilience?
  5. How does an organisation develop these characteristics?
  6. Resilience before and after (a crisis)
  7. How does nature do resilience?

 

Resilience in a mindmap

Visualising resilience is itself an exercise in complexity

The diagram should be A3, so You can download a pdf version here resilience in a mindmap PDF

Let me take you on a journey …

What is it?

Resilience is about the ability to adapt for the future and to survive. Whether that is for an organisation, country or an individual.
What seems sometimes forgotten is that the adaptation is best done before a crisis!
And here Resilience is more an organisational strategic management strategy, and not a security protocol. In this sense, Resilience is the ‘why’ to Change Management’s ‘how’

Why should my organisation care about resilience?

Research shows that the average rate of turnover of large organisations is accelerating. from around 35 years in 1965 to around 15 years in 1995. Organisations that want to stick around need to adapt with the changing environment.

Organisations know that they need to change to survive, but today’s urgency overrides the vague need to do something about a long term problem.  For this reason, crises can be the  catalyst for change.

Resilience is about dealing with organisational inertia, because the environment will change. The more successful an organisation has been in the past, the more difficult it will be to make change and so it becomes susceptible to abrupt failure. Miller coined the term ‘Icarus Paradox‘ to describe the effect and wrote a book by the same name. Icarus was the fictional Greek character who with his son made wings made from feathers and wax, but died when he flew too close to the sun and the wax melted, causing the feathers to fall out of the wings.

It is possible that Eastman Kodak is the best example of this trait. An organisation that was very successful between 1880 and 2007, Kodak failed to make the transition to digital and to move out of film fast enough.

Why is detailed planning not working?

Simply put, the world is too complex and the outliers becoming more common

  1. increasing connectedness – interdependencies leading to increasing brittleness of society/organisations  – just in time process management – risks, in rare instances, may become highly correlated even if they have shown independence in the past
  2.  speed of communication forces speedier decisionmaking
  3. increasing complexity compounds the effect of any variability in data and therefore the uncertainty for decisionmakers
  4. biology –  we build systems with an optimism bias. Almost all humans are more optimistic about their future than statistically possible. We plan for a future which is better than it is and do not recognise the chances of outlier events correct. Additionally, we plan using (somewhat biased) rational thought, but respond to crises with our emotions.

So if

  • we can’t predict the outlier events and
  • this makes most strategy less useful– especially that which is written and gathers dust without being lived ,

maybe we can be more resilient when we run into the outliers. What Taleb calls the Black Swans in the book of the same name.

Taleb’s book is available from Book Depository and is well worth the read, even if he can’t help repeating himself and dropping hints about fabulous wealth.

What’s the recipe for resilience?

Bad news, there isn’t a hard recipe for a resilient organisation, just like there isn’t one for a successful company, but they all seem to share some common attributes such as:

  • Agility and the ability to recover quickly from an event and,
  • an awareness of their changing environment and the willingness to evolve with it amongst others.

How does an organisation develop these characteristics?

It is a combination of many things –

  • developing an organisational culture which recognises these attributes which is supported and facilitated from the top of the organisation;
  • partnering with other organisations to increase their knowledge and reach when an event comes; and
  • Lastly engaging in the debate and learning about best practices

 Resilience before and after (a crisis)

But is resilience just one set of behaviours or a number.  When we think of resilient organisations and communities, our minds tend to go to the brave community / people / organisation that rose up after a high consequence event and overcame adversity. These people and organisations persist in the face of natural and manmade threats. Numerous examples include New York after the September 2001 events; Brisbane after the floods in 2011; and the Asian Tsunami in 2004.

However there is another set of actions which are more difficult in many ways to achieve. This is the capacity to mitigate the high consequence, low likelihood events or the creeping disaster before a crisis is experienced. The US behaved admirably in responding to the 9/11 terrorist disaster after it had occurred, but as the 9/11 Commission Report notes, terrorists had attempted on numerous occasions to bring down the World Trade Center and come quite close to succeeding.

In this thought may be one of the best argument for blue sky research. Serendipity – wondering through the universe with your eyes open to observe what’s happening around you, rather than head down and focussed only on one task – is this the secret to innovation?

How does nature do resilience ?

Life becomes resilient in that it is replicated wildly so that many copies exist, so that if some number fail, life can continue. Individual creatures carry DNA, which is all that needs to be replicated. Those creatures compete with each other and the environment to become more and more efficient. An individual creature may or may not be resilient, but the DNA is almost immortal.

How an organisation achieves this is the challenge that every management team needs to address. Over the next posts I will expand more

😉

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“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”

The quote above has been often misattributed to Charles Darwin. But according to the Darwin project, it is actually a quote from Leon Megginson* in the 1960s paraphrasing Darwin in a management journal.

Now that I have done my bit to put that meme to bed, it is worth considering whether there is value in the concept or whether it is a dangerous oversimplification. And the answer is…

.. It depends!

You didn’t really think there was a black or white answer to this. The facts, such as we have, are that there are very few companies around today which are in the same form. Indeed, Mark Perry’s in his excellent economics blog Carpe Diem presents a chilling picture comparing the US fortune 500 from 1955 and 2011.

Of the 500 companies on the list in 1955, fewer than one in seven are still on the list in 2012! Only 57 years later. I say only 57 years, because it is less than the lifespan of an average western person.

So what happened to the rest, the other 6 in 7? They have either gone bankrupt, been privatised, merged, or their fortunes have gone south to the point that they are under the Fortune 500.

The parallels between evolution and raw capitalism are hard to resist. Indeed, although this may be a bridge too far, there may even be a parallel between evolutionary eras such as the Cambrian Explosion and the current communications technology fuelled business environment. As such, the life expectancy of companies seems to be getting less as the speed of global communications increases.  Steve Jobs is quoted in Forbes Magazine suggesting “why decline happens” at great companies: “The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The company starts valuing the great salesman, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues.” So salesmen are put in charge, and product engineers and designers feel demoted: Their efforts are no longer at the white-hot center of the company’s daily life. They “turn off.”

Maybe another way to say this is that all organisations must have purpose, whether that is a government agency or a company. The widgets (for want of a better description) might be policy or law in the case of a government agency; cars in the case of a car company; or services in the case of a services organisation. If the organisation maintains its focus on why it exists, then it can maybe adapt and survive beyond the average – however, this is hard work and most will end up like trilobites, ubiquitous one day, fossils the next.

Alex

Trilobite fossil – Photo by kevinzim – http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/43243889/

*Megginson, L. C. (1964). “Key to Competition is Management.” Petroleum Management, 36(1): 91-95.