Resilience and Safety: Lessons-Learned through 9 Miles of Pain

Since my military retirement I often spend time trying to figure out ways to fight the unending battle against gravity (which attempts to drag muscles closer to the ground) and age (which attempts to add mischievous aches and pains as life goes on). These foes seem to take plenty of opportunities to attempt to get me out of shape. While I was on Active Duty the Marine Corps made sure I did things to battle gravity and age on a regular basis, which helped ensure I could pass my Physical Fitness Tests and Combat Fitness Tests. Now I have to find new ways to wage the war on gravity and age.

As part of this quest I recently ran a 9-mile mountain race with my family. This was 9 miles of pain, but as part of the battle against age and gravity it was rewarding. It also taught me something about resilience and safety. I would like to share these lessons because I think we can apply these concepts in our daily lives, establish attitudes that support resilience and safety, and take these attitudes into the workplace. In shaping our attitudes and our outlook towards the way we manage our personal and professional decision-making, there are opportunities for improving performance (at home and within our professional organizations).

Since this post is about resilience and safety I think it is important to describe what they mean.

Resilience: There are many descriptions and definitions for resilience, but conceptually I think a fair description is the ability of a system (including people in the system) to proactively anticipate threats and opportunities in order to react appropriately if or when the need arises, and the ability to adapt to uncertainty and changing conditions as they occur. 

Safety: While there are many definitions and descriptions of safety, one of my preferences is the definition found in ISO IEC Guide 51 “Freedom from unacceptable risk”. I like this definition because it really gets to the heart of the matter of explicit risk identification, and acceptance or non-acceptance. For every potential risk of loss there is a potential for gain as well and this is something that we must remember.  Organizations do not exist simply to maintain a state of safety, they exist to accomplish a function, and as humans, the same applies to us. So, incorporating risk into the description of safety can help shape the way we make safety decisions.

Here is how I attempted to use the concepts of resilience and safety into my planning for this endeavor:

In planning for this event my team and I attempted to identify the numerous hazards and the mitigation techniques we would use (hydration packs for water, extra shoes and socks, a small first-aid kit, and cell phones for emergency contact (although the effectiveness of cell phones in certain areas was limited). Our planning aided resilience because it gave us options. Had we focused solely on performance (speed), we might have avoided bringing the extra shoes, or even as much water as we carried. However, our goals and mitigation strategies were aligned. The objective was not to place high in the event, but to finish within our personal goals and minimize potential injury. So our planning efforts added a resilient capacity: hydration and snack bars to keep us going, extra shoes in case the first pair didn’t provide enough protection against the technical terrain, and a means of communication at certain points on the mountain. Even though my backpack degraded my performance to an extent, it provided the ability to carry the “resilience and safety tools”.  Using a safety-oriented planning approach that looked at acceptable and unacceptable risk helped us deliberately decide what hazards we would mitigate. We accepted the remaining risk we could not mitigate, as the potential gain (finishing the event) outweighed the residual risk leftover after our mitigation strategies.

Finally, since lessons-learned, are a critical part of a learning organization, it was necessary to capture our feedback using a “what went right, what went wrong, and what can be improved” format. Regardless of the size of an event, there will always be lessons to learn, capture, and share. This was a great learning event and capturing these ideas within our small team will help us prepare for future events.

It would have been easy to simply show up to this run with a bottle of water and hit the trail. However, for me and my crew, assessing the potential loss/gain and making risk-informed decisions was a better way to go. I think these types of choices often begin with our attitudes and this story is just an illustration of a broader concept: our attitudes towards loss, gain, and risk often determine what actions we will take and how we will perceive risks (in both our personal and professional lives). So, as organizations work towards accomplishing objectives, here are a few questions:

1. When faced with new situations or routine operations, how does your attitude influence your decision-making?

2. Do you explicitly plan for both safety and resilience (as opposed to simply choosing a compliance-based approach)?

3. Do you make this planning process and risk acceptance/non-acceptance explicitly known to leaders, managers, supervisors, and line employees as you move your organization towards goal/mission accomplishment?

Thanks for reading, and have a great and safe week!