In December’s edition of Dialogue our authors all agree on the problem. To be successful in today’s 24/7 world, organizations and individuals need stamina and resilience to meet all the demands we face each and every day – to be nimble and alert enough to keep on track for success. In this issue of Dialogue, we selected several pieces of writing dedicated to trying to find how we can manage this.
Luis Gallardo focuses square and central on people. Get the people resilient and inwardly confident, he argues, and the organization will naturally follow. People are indeed our most important asset. Nick Liddell again focuses on the individual, but looks outside the psyche, at individuals in interaction rather than in introspection. He argues for making learning through failure an organizational policy and for strong debate about the real business challenges facing the organization, rather than glossing over the tougher details. (He asks us a great question – whether we deliberately develop wild ducks in our organizations.) Strangely, one article that comes very close to a solution for individual resilience is off-topic. Sam Pearce, The Man Who Re-invented the Wheel (page 98), is ostensibly writing about innovation, but offers great insight into Hillary Clinton’s concept of stamina through his own dogged perseverance. Then Linda Holbeche spreads the net still wider.
Holbeche’s article looks again at individual capabilities, such as speedy decision-making, nimble reactions and flexible employees. She advocates less top-down leadership and generating more trust through stronger connections between the organization and its employees. She dips into the role of organizational culture as well as the role of values-led leadership in creating a positive climate. But Holbeche goes beyond people and looks also at the role of some of the hard wiring in the organization. For her, it’s not just about how people feel and work together. The artifice of the organization is a reality, in that its routines and structure affect and infect all of its inhabitants, with good or bad outcomes. So she also looks at how the very structure and reward systems can push erroneously for short-term results at the expense of innovation and collaboration. She wants executives to be better at leading the change that inevitably accompanies all speedy responses to market changes and she wants organizational processes and structure to be robust enough to morph to match.
Do we really understand resilience?
It feels as though we are at the beginning of a journey to define resilience. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot published on the topic and if you search, you’ll find more than one resilience institute. Personal resilience is not a personality trait and we can find buffers to fend off stress and ways to develop inner strength. Organizational resilience is attributed to everything from leadership and staff engagement, through to breaking silos, stress testing plans and networks. Is the recipe just a bit too complex right now?
At one level, some of the proven aspects that we know to be true about people and organizations must, once again, be stirred into the recipe. These tried and tested ideas have been part of the answer to people working productively together for a long time and remain relevant today. Some examples relevant to building or increasing resilience would be the power of good leadership, the beneficial effect of a supportive climate and using reward systems to work with your aspirations rather than against them. But can we move beyond the soup of what we already know to add new insight into these particular and specific challenges? Is there something special about personal and organizational resilience that we can focus on? Or is it really just the outcome of what we have known all along? The latter seems unlikely, given that 24/7 stress and globalization have not been around as long as our fundamental ideas of what makes people and organizations tick. Surely, there is something new here?
It’s not that we should take the other parts of the recipe for granted. Holbeche’s article records a timely plea for less top-down leadership, which we have still not fully achieved today despite it having been a clarion call for the past 25 years. It’s more that if we can isolate some really distinctive aspects to resilience, we might all be better at achieving success for the 21st century organization.
Levels of analysis
A good first step would be to get clear about what we are studying. We know that some individuals are more resilient than others and we also know that resilience can be learned – it’s not a character trait. Andy Murray, the UK tennis player, is a great example of bouncing back and keeping trying until he finally won Wimbledon in 2013, 77 years after the last British champion, Fred Perry. And there’s been a fair amount written about personal resilience, including Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile’s latest research in the past five years looking at the link between individual meaning at work and personal resilience. So we should definitely look at how individuals develop the resilience that can keep them going in a world where it is not just New York that never sleeps.
Organizations, on the other hand, are more than just the sum of their people, so we can still get in the way of even highly resilient employees and trip them up. We have hard factors like reward systems, knowledge management systems, functions, working policies and structures that can either provide people with a ramp for take-off or a rock to stub their toe. So to start our investigations let’s look at each separately, just as our Dialogue authors have done. Keep our feelings and our warmware distinct from our policies and our hardware. Less has been written about organizational resilience.
Why is it that some organisations, as living organisms, adapt and survive while others do not? How do organizations drift into sustained irrelevance?
The strategy experts Gary Hamel and Liisa Välikangas wrote an article with ideas for keeping an organization resilient. Their core thesis was that “however celebrated, a turn-around is a testament to a company’s lack of resilience”. They see organizational resilience as continuously anticipating and adjusting to market trends that might permanently damage the core business. There are four steps: to be aware of and acknowledge dramatically changing circumstances (conquer denial); to spread risk through smaller, lower-risk experiments (value variety); to avoid continuing to fund moribund strategies (liberate resources); and to explore new strategic options (embrace paradox). The Hamel/Välikangas model is mostly concerned with being alert and avoiding getting stuck with a strategy past its sell-by date.
It’s a good model for creating strategic resilience. But I still think we need to dig a bit deeper to directly address the challenge of creating organizational resilience, the ability to morph appropriately and quickly.
Looking beyond leadership
We know that symbolic acts from leaders have a huge effect on us through the subliminal messages they send. If you want people to collaborate, collaborate yourself; if you want people to be customer-focused, visibly spend a good portion of your time with customers yourself. But it’s not enough. Humans are largely rational and we pay attention to how we are assessed and rewarded, as well as to how we are led. If we think about the classic McKinsey 7S model, we can divide it into two sections. Strategy, structure and systems combine to form the “cold triangle” – the plumbing of the organization, if you will. On the other side, staff, skills, (leadership) style and super-ordinate goals (values and culture) form the “warm square” – people and how they work with and behave towards each other. We need to keep both in sight. If we over-rely on leadership, resilience will fail when poor leaders step in or when strong leaders depart. We need to embed change into the framework and structure of the organization, if the change is to outlive individual leaders as they pass through.
The cold triangle
To create a resilient organization, we need to pay attention to having a relevant strategy, but also to the other two parts of the cold triangle – structure and systems. The trouble is, it’s just not fashionable. Yet for organizational endurance, we need to look at issues like systems that really underpin (rather than fight with) the changes we want to make. For example, if the leader advocates collaboration, but employees are rewarded as individuals, then the chances of getting collaboration are severely diminished. So the first argument is for adaptable systems that work with our intent. Getting in place consistent systems that work together and talk to each other is a constant challenge in global organizations, which inherit new and often contradictory systems each time they buy a new company. Too often, the plumbing in the company looks more like a Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg contraption- temporary fixes using ingenuity and whatever is to hand, often sealing wax and tape.
Add a process perspective
Processes are often seen as the tedious side of organizational life. Leadership is exciting; process is control. Process means activities that are routine, habitual, repetitive, lacking in creativity, devoid of intelligence, uninspiring and plain boring. Worse, adhering to a process implies restriction, constraint and reducing your freedom to act. But if everyone exercises freedom, the result is often chaos. Have you ever found yourself chafing against the inefficiencies in your own business because everyone is doing their own thing? Good systems and processes like information technology, procurement and innovation embed endurance. It’s like building a house; the very first thing you decide, even before the walls go up, is where you want your light switches and plug points. It’s hard to do, but you are essentially planning one of the key systems that will underpin and enable the running of the house. At home, good processes mean that you are never thrust into darkness. At work, they give you a greater chance of being robust against competitive attacks while your company is in transition. Networked businesses also build in dependencies on suppliers, joint ventures and other partnerships. When you start to collaborate with other organizations, it’s worth checking out how resilient and adaptable their systems and processes are and also how these systems support long-term thinking.
Avoid the re-organizing bug
Just as we need to focus on what we should pay attention to, we also need to think about what to avoid. Re-organizations are often used to create momentum, but can result instead in unnecessary turmoil and confusion. The rule of thumb is that “structure follows strategy”. Structure is simply an enabling framework. Restructuring can be downright dangerous, because people, like animals, fight harder to prevent losses than they do to achieve gains. Any restructuring will create perceived (and actual) winners and losers. The losers will be more active and determined and, if they are influential, they can undermine or outwit a new organizational chart. What’s the best way to know when it’s the right time to introduce restructuring in support of organizational resilience? Long after the new strategy has created new ways of working. People are gifted at getting work done despite the way the organization is structured. Don’t weave around a new organizational structure until people start to give up because the old structure starts to get in the way. At that point, they will welcome rather than resent the changes. When Lou Gerstner (IBM CEO from 1993 to 2002) moved his company into advisory work and out of manufacturing, he didn’t rush to change the company architecture. When the restructuring did come, it was welcomed.
In the spirit of dialogue, our aim is to start a debate about the real, fundamental, underlying attributes of personal and organizational resilience and agility. We aren’t looking for a silver bullet, or an answer in a nutshell. But can we identify a handful of attributes and actions, that, if addressed, could help us to create the levels of resilience we need for 21st century life? Join the conversation at www.dialoguereview.com or send us your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @dialoguetweets
Liz Mellon is chairman of Dialogue’s editorial board
The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement and Creativity at Work, Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, Harvard Business Review Press, August 2011
‘The Quest for Resilience’, Harvard Business Review, G Hamel and L Välikangas, September 2003
The McKinsey 7S Framework is a management model developed by well-known business consultants Robert H Waterman Jr and Tom Peters (who also authored In Search of Excellence) in the 1980s.
William Heath Robinson was a cartoonist and illustrator, known for drawings of eccentric machines. In the UK, the term “Heath Robinson” entered the language as a description of any unnecessarily complex and implausible contraption, similar to “Rube Goldberg” in the US who is known for cartoons depicting complex gadgets that perform simple tasks in convoluted ways.
Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman, Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2011
The Strategy of Execution: The Five Step Guide for Turning Vision Into Action, Liz Mellon and Simon Carter, forthcoming McGraw-Hill 2013