Recently on my new podcast I had my friend Bruno Marion as a guest and it triggered a thought I’ve wanted to share for some time about Organisational Resilience. The episode is entitled ‘How might we make chaos our friend‘ Bruno is a leading authority on how we can apply the science of chaos theory to our lives and businesses. And his credibility comes not only through the 100s of books he reads per year, but perhaps more importantly, from how he embeds this into his everyday life. I really recommend listening through to the end for some pearls of wisdom when it comes to having daily routines which can improve your resilience through chaos.
In this post, I will focus on ‘resilience’, which I think is more or less our ability to either stay strong or even better, get stronger, in the face of adversity. You may have heard the term ‘emotional resilience’ as one type of resilience, and there are others, such as resilient systems. Here, we will look at one way of looking at organisational resilience.
The Resilience Equation
I see resilience as being the result of a simple multiplication: diversity x distribution = resilience.
Let me first use an analogy to make my point. When creating a server infrastructure, there are two types of systems: centralised systems and decentralised systems. It is common knowledge that centralised systems have many pitfalls, the main one is fragility and volatility due to the fact they have a single point of failure. If that central server fails, the whole system fails. In a decentralised system however, information is constantly being copied from server to server, meaning that if one server is attacked or fails, the whole system will spread that load across the other servers. The system is resilient. This way of designing the system is sometimes called distribution.
But what if all these distributed servers are the same? What if they all run on the same software and hardware? Well, that would mean that whilst the system is decentralised, if a virus manages to damage one server, it will find it equally easy to damage the others. This is where our second principle, diversity comes in. In a distributed system, each server or node must be different or at least diverse, then it is unlikely an attack could damage the whole system. This is why diversity is important.
In society, and indeed in organisations, diversity is the thing that enables us to be resilient particularly from narrow ideologies or perspectives. It helps counter extremes, acting like a natural thermostat: when the system gets too hot, some parts of the system will work to cool it down. In an organisation, when some parts of the system believe perhaps too strongly in one thing, the other parts can counter it.
So diversity is something not just of moral significance, it is something of practical significance, and when building modern organisations, whether for human and/or commercial benefit, diversity is a key ingredient.
So what does this mean for your organisation?
Well, it means that to be resilient in the face of change, organisations must foster both distribution and diversity. What can this look like? Let’s take each in turn:
An organisation can be distributed on several levels. Let’s look at some in brief:
Distributed ownership: An organisation can be owned in a distributed way (e.g. a cooperative)
Distributed structure: The ‘org chart’ or mental model for the degree to which power is centralised or decentralised can be more or less distributed (e.g. Holacracy or other self-management structures)
Distributed process: Whether hierarchical or more distributed, an organisation can adopt certain distributed process or tools. For instance, if meetings have a specific person from outside of the team designated as the facilitator and uses methods such as the advisory process, consent based decision making, or other participative process, this could in theory be described as distributed.
These methods range in their ambition and commitment to distribution and from small to big, all can be beneficial and in nudging the organisation’s resilience in a chaotic world. (If you want to find out more, please arrange a free 30mins coaching call)
What about diversity? Diversity is a complex topic and its full interrogation doesn’t fit in the scope of this post, but for the sake of a short applicable tip: diversity is the degree to which an organisation benefits from varied perspectives. For this purpose, it’s useful hiring people who might think different things from the rest of the team. Diversity can be approach demographically based on a diverse range of people in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality…etc. It can also be done ideologically, political leaning might be an example of that, or religious belief. Or it could be based on personality type, or even skills or mindsets. For instance, in the past I’ve tried building teams based on ‘past, present, future’ thinkers. The idea was to have past thinkers, such as academics who have rigorously interrogated all that has been done so far, present thinkers who might be hands-on practitioners within the field, and future thinkers who might be experimenting towards solutions that are a bit more ‘out there’ and new solutions. Diversity comes in many shapes and forms and is a celebration of different perspectives, a celebration that we are all equal and different at the same time. The sum of which can benefit the organisations resilience.
Transparency & Openness:
Distributed systems only work when data is shared between nodes in the system. For this reason, all the above is premised on the organisation having an open culture and open processes. Without this, it simply doesn’t work. So for your organisation to be resilient, think of moving from 1-2-1 communication methods to open ones (like Slack), or from local hard drives, to cloud servers with collaborative documents. Only then can a distributed system work, and can a diverse system benefit from varied perspectives.
Finally, a note on emotional resilience:
I’ve looked at organisational resilience here more ‘intellectually’ with some concrete ways to put it into practice. But an organisation is a group of people. People are messy. We have feelings. It’s not easy. And so understanding and nurturing emotional resilience is perhaps the most important point. This means leaving people space to ‘fail’, it means supporting not solving, in other words, somebody might have a stumble or a small fall, and you’re there to let them know they’re safe and loved and they are capable of getting back up, learning and solving their own problems. Nurturing emotional resilience requires a delicate dance between giving real autonomy to people to think for themselves, whilst also being compassionate and supportive. These two can sometimes feel contrasting as many parents would attest to. Our leadership styles sh
Nurturing resilience is a keystone to navigating chaos and so is one other point. Resilience is a systemic thing, which for the purpose of this post, means it arises in relation to other elements. Basically what I’m trying to say is: you can’t be resilient alone, being supportive and compassionate is perhaps the greatest tool to creating a resilient group of humans.
If you have any examples you’d like to share, any comments or thoughts, or need any guidance, I’d love to hear from you. We’re also offering 5 free tips along with one free coaching call to help people re-design their organisations. If you’re interested, you can sign up here…