Matthieu VITEAU: Resilience and organisations: a few thoughts from a practical perspective

Matthieu VITEAU: Resilience and organisations: a few thoughts from a practical perspective

Definitions

Resilience is the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop. It is about the capacity to use shocks and disturbances (a financial crisis or climate change for instance) to spur renewal and innovative thinking[1]. I would contend that  “continuing to develop” means “continuing to create value to similar levels to the situation preceding the occurance of a shock”.

“Value” here is to be understood as a generic term similar to output: basically anything that a system creates to sustain itself, grow and reproduce before it expands its energy and degenerates. Value can be as obvious as life (manifested in the tendency shown by ecosystems and human beings to survive after the occurrence of, for example, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, wars, industrial accidents, even layoffs to an extent), goods and services. It can also be abstract and far less visible such as personal data, intellectual property, etc.

Systems are a set of elements linked together and interacting according to rules or principles. They can be living (ecosystems, human beings, etc.) or not (supply chains, transportation systems and energy grids); either tangible (human communities including companies and cities) or intangible (computer systems, satellite communication networks, etc.).

A shock is a situation either short (an event in a point in time) or more prolonged (such as war, a long lasting economic crisis, a constant threat etc.) that has a dramatic impact on what is considered by the system elements to be a (their) normal course of action.

A continuum of shocks?

As a consultant in strategy, I’ve been increasingly called upon to help decision makers shape, improve or step up (if not downright create) resiliency in the organisations they manage. Discussions I have when developing such a project usually reach a point where the question of opportunity arises: “how much will the creation of a redundant network of communication, the establishment of an alternate headquarters, the reduction of social tension, etc. cost my organization?”

This is where I believe vision and conviction come in. I have observed that the need to launch resiliency-related projects emerged at about the same time shocks, no matter their nature, were perceived to be occurring in unending strings. Organisations felt they no longer had the time necessary to recover from one shock before the next one occurred. Contingency plans’ purposes appear to not only make organisations better at reacting to a shock but also at inscribing them into a continuum of shocks (or situations perceived as such).

My perception is that an organization is deemed resilient if it is geared to endlessly absorb shocks while still being able to generate an amount of value close to the pre-shock situation. It may just be impossible for systems to sustain such a rhythm over an extended period of time, especially when it comes to living biological systems[2].

Shocks are the brutal confrontation of energies

Each shock entails the brutal encounter of at least two forces. Complex and/or successive shocks within a given timeframe usually involve more than two types of energy. Systems, whether abstract such as organisations or living like human beings, generate energy: this is what keeps them moving forward and generating value. Organisations have goals to meet, constraints to observe, resources to achieve their target objectives. These inputs go through a complex process to meet these objectives and they require energy to be processed, no matter if the objectives are met or not. Once an organization has settled into a rhythm (often noticeable by monthly, biannual and other time-sensitive reports), the amount of efforts needed to deliver on the target objectives decreases. The organization can enter into a sustained rhythm of delivery and work processes, until comes the shock.

The shock will disrupt that “cruising speed” and will endanger, at least momentarily, the organisation’s ability to generate value. The shock may be as radical as wiping a system out (living beings are killed and physical assets are destroyed; durable lack of confidence and reputational loss lead to the disintegration of the customer base and a company goes out of business), or just disruptive to a lesser degree (it may however translate into a temporary or permanent loss of competitiveness for instance).

Drawing upon energies to recover from shocks

As soon as the shock occurs, energy will be taken from inside the system to 1) protect it as much as possible, 2) repair it as quickly as possible.

A resilient professional organisation will have, before a shock occurs, thought of a business continuity plan. The latter contributes to the creation of output at close-to-normal levels while the organization mends itself.

However, no matter how resilient an organization is, it will have to readjust some or all of its internal energies to make it possible to absorb the shock and repair itself. It may also have to resort to external energy (asking for governmental support, for instance, or from its suppliers).

Organisations will require endless amounts of energy and investments if they begin to look at their environments as strings of endless shocks and expect themselves to be resilient over the long term. Their efforts will be commensurate to the degree of complexity and dynamism those environments experience.

In other words: if organizations start wanting to be resilient about everything over the long term, they risk exhausting all their resources. They will not only lose sight of their purpose and vision, but also they’d spend all their energies in into absorbing shocks instead of using it to move forward and fulfill their goals.

Resilience and systems of system

Resilience over the long term can only be achieved if systems evolve in environments that support them. That is, for example, companies can draw constant energies from their suppliers, customers, employees, shareholders, regulators, even competitors. That can only work if the supported organization also supports the other elements in the system of systems (the system of systems being here the fabric of an economy whatever its scale).

Environments are diverse and varied. They can be ecological, social, regulatory, cultural, financial – any nature, as environments are all facets of a single reality. They are everything phenomena that impact an organization’s ability to meet its desired end state. An organisation’s resilience is likely to be stronger when its environments contribute to the absorption of shocks. Resilience is not turned inward but outward: when a shock occurs, the energy needed to absorb it will be shared among various components of the system of systems the organization belongs to. The burden on a shocked organization will be less intense thus.

Resilience within, resilience without

The bottom line of resilience is that it is a systemic notion. It is not so much about an organization but the environments the organisation belongs to, what it contributes to them and what it can draws from it when disaster strikes.

[1] This generic definition is used by the Stockholm University and the Royal Swedish Academy of Science. The definition goes however further: “Resilience thinking embraces learning, diversity and above all the belief that humans and nature are strongly coupled to the point that they should be conceived as one social ecological system.” While this position may be seen as somewhat restricted and restrictive for tangible applications, it also has the advantage of considering humans within the physical environment. That is, they generate and are impacted by energies and shocks that may contribute to the unbalance of the ecosystems they live in.

[2] The most obvious and time-tried manifestation of that limit are armies. Military commanders and planners are fully aware that human beings (soldiers) and materiel (jets, ships, weapons systems etc.) need to recover after a given period of time otherwise they will stop “performing”. A soldier’s career follows a rhythm of “training, fighting, recovering”. The same goes for materiel as it is maintained, used in combat and repaired. Not recognizing these constraints and overusing either human beings or materiel leads to critical failures at dire times.

MATTHIEU VITEAU
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