Building Corporate Resilience

Close-Up Of Shield On Table Against Black Background.

Organizations interested in surviving the unprecedented challenges of today’s world can learn a lot from George Markow. After all, as isolation forced upon us by COVID-19 radically changed life as we know it, the 99-year-old Canadian launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for medical research and the hospital that cared for his wife before she passed.

Aiming to raise $100,000, the inspiring senior—who uses a walker—plans to walk 100 km before his 100th birthday next spring. To date, he has already generated more than $30,000 in donations after clocking over 70 km on the garden path that circles his retirement home in Newmarket, Ontario.

As Markow’s daughter Sylvia Perkins noted in an online post after visiting her dad (through a window) in early June, “He looked GREAT with a big smile on his face, as he was standing tall and straight! His mission to walk 100 km prior to his 100th birthday has certainly improved not only his physical wellbeing, but his mental health as well! He has a PURPOSE and it is all so positive and heartwarming!”

What’s the lesson here for organizations?

Simple. Markow’s goalsetting is a prime example of where individual resilience comes from.

This article briefly examines the increasing need for resilience in organizations, then explains the three underpinnings of individual resilience and how they can be replicated in organizations.

Why Resilience Matters

Helping organizations build resilience is one of the key objectives of the Ivey Academy executive education programs that I teach at the Ivey Business School. Prior to the pandemic, I was asked to give a keynote at an HR conference. After discussing topic ideas, we landed on “Organizational Resilience:  How to Handle Shocks and Stressors.”

Weirdly prophetic? Not really. At that point, resilience was already a hot topic.

In the pre-COVID period, VUCA (short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) was the trendy acronym that summed up the four major challenges faced by managers in the so-called Age of Disruption. As pointed out in “What VUCA Really Means for You,” a 2014 HBR article by Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine, the term is somewhat misleading because it conflates four distinct types of external challenges that demand different responses.

Bennett and Lemoine offered various strategic responses to the four underpinnings of a VUCA context. Unfortunately, our VUCA world has now been disrupted by a pandemic—which has essentially triggered all four dimensions simultaneously for most—if not all—organizations.

And this perfect storm of turbulence means that organizational resilience is now more important than ever before.

How Resilience Works

In the 2002 HBR article “How Resilience Works,” Diane Coutu explained:

Resilience is a reflex, a way of facing and understanding the world, that is deeply etched into a person’s mind and soul. Resilient people and companies face reality with staunchness, make meaning of hardship instead of crying out in despair, and improvise solutions from thin air. Others do not. This is the nature of resilience, and we will never completely understand it.

As things stand, most deep research into resilience has been done at the individual level, with much of it focusing on why some WWII concentration camp prisoners survived the Holocaust while others facing the same tragic challenge did not.

Coutu highlights the experience of Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl, who endured a seemingly hopeless situation by creating concrete goals for himself (such as surviving the horrors of Auschwitz in order to lecture others on the psychology of concentration camps after the war).

A similar coping mechanism obviously exists in Markow as he circumnavigates his retirement residence during the COVID-19 pandemic, hoping 1,500 laps will allow him to meet the fundraising goal he set for himself. “I love walking, so I thought why not raise money doing it?” he told local media.

The resilient senior—who grew up in communist Russia—spent several years in a German prison camp, where he experienced things many people couldn’t imagine, let alone survive. As Markow’s daughter explained to reporters, “Those horrific experiences allowed him to better understand how blessed we all are to live here. It’s made him stronger and so grateful for what’s being given to him.”

Threading together the various findings in this area, Coutu notes that resilient people tend to possess three core attributes: (1) an unwavering acceptance of reality; (2) a deep belief underpinned with strong values that life is meaningful; and (3) an uncanny ability to improvise.

Building Organizational Resilience

Using HR-centric tactics based on the underpinnings of individual resilience identified by Coutu, organizations can build up the following three pillars of organizational resilience.

Three Pillars of Organizational Resilience

Facing Down Reality: Most of us view resilience as rooted in optimism. But as Coutu warns, that’s not true if optimism distorts your sense of reality. “In extremely adverse situations,” she notes, “rose-colored thinking can actually spell disaster.”

Simply put, some organizations do not share enough relevant information with their members about the external challenges they face. Sometimes this happens intentionally as organizations try to shield or protect certain elements of their process to minimize disruptions. Unintentionally, organizations sometimes foster a culture of “happy talk” that maintains positive tones even when external signals carry not-so-happy messages.

Within your organization, ask yourself: “Do people really understand and accept the realities we’re facing now? Over the next five years? Ten years?” These questions are important because people and organizations often slip into denial as a coping mechanism when facing adverse situations.

If we could turn back the clock, it would be interesting to find out how executives at Sears would have answered these questions before the retailer made a string of embarrassing mistakes in the early 90s, which essentially derailed its ability to understand customers, as competitors like Walmart and Home Depot were gaining steam.

As CNBC highlighted in the article “Here are 5 things Sears got wrong that sped its fall,” many employees saw the writing on the wall after the 1993 launch of “The Softer Side of Sears.” The ad campaign aimed to attract female shoppers after years of catering to men seeking home-building products. But it generated market confusion over the company’s merchandising strategy. And internal awareness of this confusion didn’t prevent management from compounding the problem with a diversification program that saw Sears further lose focus by entering insurance, banking, investments, and real estate.

There are many ways in which a forward-thinking organization’s HR functions can provide and disseminate real information on what a company’s environment is telling them about customer satisfaction, current levels of talent satisfaction and engagement, and even the broad macro trends happening in their industry. This might not fall under the traditional HR purview, but one of the points of this article is that it’s time for organizations to re-think their people responsibilities if they want to help develop the resilience shield that today’s organizations require.

“Strong values infuse a situation with meaning because they offer ways to interpret and shape events. In other words, value systems at resilient companies serve as scaffolding during times of trouble.”

The search for meaning: The ability to see reality is linked closely to the second building block of resilience—the propensity to make meaning out of challenging times.

Since finding meaning in one’s situation is such an important aspect of resilience, it’s no surprise that the most resilient people and organizations possess strong value systems. Strong values infuse a situation with meaning because they offer ways to interpret and shape events. In other words, value systems at resilient companies serve as scaffolding during times of trouble.

A good example of this values-based scaffolding at work can be found at Barry-Wehmiller, a global supplier of manufacturing technology and services that was transformed following a meeting of 20 managers in 2002. Initially called simply to explore common experiences in leadership and motivation, the gathering is considered a watershed event in company history because it led to a list of behaviours considered essential to an ideal corporate culture. This list resulted in the development of the firm’s guiding principles of leadership, or GPL, which, among other things, call on leaders to create an environment that allows all teams and individuals “to have a meaningful role.”

As CEO Bob Chapman notes on the US$3-billion company’s website, the GPL serves as “a moral compass, steering us time after time to approach challenges with this question: If we measure success by the way we touch the lives of people, then how does that relate to the problem at hand?”

All organizations should push to ensure that everyone across all levels realizes the true value and meaning embedded within their individual jobs and responsibilities, since this can provide the grit they need to keep pressing on during challenging situations.

Ability to improvise or bricolage: The third building block of resilience is bricolage, which means, at least in the modern sense, an ability to improvise a solution to a problem by making do with whatever is at hand. (Interestingly, the roots of the word are tied to the concept of resilience, which literally means “bouncing back.”)

As Coutu points out, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman exemplified this ability. Out of pure curiosity, he made himself an expert on picking locks and cracking safes while isolated in the New Mexico desert working on the atomic bomb. To master the art, Feynman didn’t just study the mechanics. He cobbled together psychological insights into how people chose combinations, which led him to conclude that his co-workers would select numbers of mathematical significance, not random numbers, when making up combinations for locks on cabinets. This famously allowed Feynman to figure out that locks protecting America’s atomic secrets were set to the math constant e=2.71828.

Replicating this pillar of resilience across an organization is particularly challenging for those that are heavily rule- or process-based. Karl Weick’s research highlights this problem. In the influential essay “Drop Your Tools: An Allegory for Organizational Studies,” he examines the preventable deaths of firefighters who failed to follow orders to drop equipment when trying to outrun a quickly spreading fire. He describes multiple cases in which safety was reachable if firefighters just complied with these standing orders, but they didn’t.

As Weick pointed out, the problem goes well beyond firefighting. Navy seamen often refuse orders to remove their heavy steel-toed shoes when abandoning ship, which sometimes leads to drowning or holes in life rafts. Fighter pilots, meanwhile, sometimes refuse orders to eject from a disabled aircraft, preferring instead the “cocoon of oxygen” present in the cockpit as they plummet to Earth.

The death of Karl Wallenda is another example. In 1978, during a promotional walk in Puerto Rico, the world-renowned high-wire artist fell to his death while still clutching his balance pole. If he had dropped it, he could have prevented his fall by using his free hands to grab the wire he was walking between two towers of San Juan’s Condado Plaza Hotel.

As a result of Weick’s research, “dropping one’s tools” has now become a proxy catchphrase for unlearning, adaptation, and flexibility, all required when your context flips upside down.

Simply put, people and organizations alike have died because it just isn’t easy to give up something that has served you well in the past. In fact, when organizations and people alike are put under pressure, they often regress to their most habituated ways of responding.

This is why it is important for companies to increase the focus on bricolage within their coaching and development programs, aiming to enable people to perform in contexts where resources aren’t as plentiful or munificent as we would expect in normal times.

Building a healthy supply of workforce “bricoleurs”—employees capable of making the most of what they have by skillfully putting objects to unfamiliar uses—will greatly improve a company’s resilience shield. When situations unravel in our VUCA world, these tinkerers muddle through by imagining and developing creative solutions and possibilities while others are just confounded.

As Bennett and Lemoine noted, the unpredictable nature of our environment can be used as a “crutch” or “a way to throw off the hard work of strategy and planning” by managers who take the easy route by assuming “you can’t prepare for a VUCA world.” But organizations can clearly influence and improve their resilience to help shield against the external forces that can knock them down—sometimes for good.

Most of us have started thinking about getting back to a new normal, whatever that might mean, but it is naïve to assume we’ll never see another crisis. The next one may not be a pandemic, but storms are always looming, and building up the three pillars of resilience before another one hits will go a long way toward increasing your chances of survival.

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