Can Organizations Skip Levels of Resiliency?

During a very interesting conversation, one of my colleagues asked a highly profound question. The question was “Can organizations skip from one level of resilience to another?” When describing resiliency levels we were talking about Table 7.1 in my book Team Leadership in High-Hazard Environments: Performance, Safety and Risk Management Strategies for Operational Teams. In Chapter 7 of my book I describe 3 levels of resilience: Surviving, Planning, and Sustaining. At the Surviving level organizations often rely on hope and “heroes” to get the job done. There may be extremely limited resources and building a “defense-in-depth” may be difficult because the organization must survive long enough to know what it doesn’t know, and build in resources and capacity to handle disruptions. The Planning level is characterized by more proactive approaches and building up resources and adaptive capacity, with an increased capability to react appropriately to unexpected events. The Sustaining level is characterized by some of the traits from the Planning level, but also includes the attribute of feed-forward adaptability where organizations learn and plan for adaptation during major changes or disturbances that may impact operations. This may be thought of as “staying the course” or perhaps even coming out very different after a major external shift, such as when major market demands push the organization past its previous boundaries. I would say that the Sustaining level may be more in line with the concept of anti-fragility, where organizations actually gain and improve when experiencing disruptions. Of course, there are likely more ways to describe levels of resiliency, but I think these 3 levels are descriptive enough to start the conversation about ways organizations can plan for the future and thrive.

Now let’s get back to the question at hand, “Can organizations skip from one level of resilience to another?” I think that is a fantastic question and I think the answer becomes an ontological argument relating to when the organization is informally or formally defined as existing. I don’t know of any organization that has not started as a concept by an individual or small group where an idea was generated, plans were developed to produce a product or service, and then the wheels were set in motion to take the idea to market. Along this path learning takes place and there are stages where the organization moves from lower levels of resilience (the organization is more fragile) to greater levels of resilience (the organization is more robust or even anti-fragile). As organizations mature they increase in what I call the Resilience Maturity levels. I don’t know of any organization that starts off and is able to skip any of these stages, although they may be able to rapidly move through these stages. Additionally, many organizations may backslide into lower levels of resilience and may also develop business units, divisions, or other sectors that sort of operate like startups within the larger organization. These “intrapreneurial” endeavors are necessary to “test the waters” and in many cases can thrive on the chaos that is often associated with the Surviving level of resilience. If the proof-of-concept or Minimum Viable Product (MVP) is able to pass key metrics it may then be possible for these ventures to read higher levels of Resilience Maturity. Even if an organization remains in deep levels of the planning phase before officially commencing operations it is still likely to start out at the Surviving level. So, regardless of when the organization officially “exists” the founding team is still likely to experience at least some aspects of the Surviving level (at least for some period of time), but is this a bad thing? I would argue that it is in fact a good thing.

Unless organizations and businesses are willing to experiment and push past prior boundaries the capacity to create new products and services that enrich the lives of others will be severely limited and all we will get as customers is the same old thing with maybe an additional button or feature; incremental innovation. If we truly want disruptive innovation that brings completely new concepts to market then we need organizations (and the people who run and work in them) that are willing to take risks and willing to work in the chaos of the Surviving mode for a little while. Hopefully they will be able to work their way up the Resilience Maturity ladder.

I also think this is important from a safety and human performance standpoint. After all, new organizations have to start producing a product or delivering a service and it should be inconceivable to ask employees to take excessive risks with their health or personal safety. So, regardless of where the organization falls on the spectrum of resilience, founders, leaders, managers, supervisors, and employees must work together to identify risks and what is acceptable and unacceptable. Once risks are identified, controls are implemented, and work is commenced organizations must continue to learn, adjust, and adapt to changing conditions so risk can continue to be managed. In many complex organizations risk is dynamic, so organizations cannot rely on "we have always done it this way" approaches. So, as organizations, teams, crews, and workers must all learn together to help the organization grow and thrive as they work their way up the Resilience Maturity levels, building deeper planning and adaptive capabilities.

Thanks for reading and I wish you a great and safe day! 

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