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StrategyJan 11, 2021

Six Secrets for Building a Resilient Organization

Gail Stout Perry and Josh Marshall

Molson Coors, Cigna, Boeing, Kroger, and Berkshire Hathaway each represent different industries and business models, but they share the increasingly unique distinction of being over a century old (and in some cases, over two centuries). This distinction is especially remarkable considering the average lifespan of an S&P500 company is less than 20 years.

Each of these companies has weathered world wars, depressions, recessions, expansions, globalization, changes in leadership, technological disruptions, and most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. While existing 100 years from now may not be a goal of every organization, it’s worth the wager that today’s leaders plan for their organizations to survive through times of uncertainty.

The resilience of an organization will be the differentiator between those that stand the test of time, and those that go the way of Blockbuster or Pan American. Resilience, through this lens, is the ability of an organization to anticipate, respond to, and emerge from unforeseen challenges. We developed the Now, Next, Future framework to help companies navigate such challenges.

While this framework is applicable in normal times as well as times of uncertainty, it is most helpful in the thick of a crisis. In a similar vein, there’s a saying often attributed to Navy Seals that “you don’t rise to the occasion; you sink to the level of your training.” As such, in this article, we’ll explore six foundational components to build and embed resilience in your organization’s culture now, before the next crisis occurs.  

components that build resilience:

  1. Anchor to purpose

  2. Anticipate change

  3. Promote transparency

  4. Create space for innovation

  5. Empower your people

  6. Celebrate wins, big and small

1. anchor to purpose

What an organization produces and how it makes money are subject to change based on a myriad of factors, including consumer preference and the economic environment. However, the why behind the business ought to prove sturdier and less circumstantial. 

The underlying purpose of an organization, and the ability of its leaders to articulate and connect their people to it, is foundational to its success. Defining and refining purpose is not a one-and-done activity and has to be more than fluffy platitudes on a company’s home page. It’s a collaborative and iterative process that requires introspection across the organization to answer why do we exist? and who do we want to be? The answers to these meaty questions should inform what success looks like, both in the near term and long term.

Once defined, the real work begins as senior leaders are tasked with living out the organization’s purpose by letting the why inform the what, whether by a market expansion, vertical integration, modernizing employee programs, or other strategic decisions.

2. anticipate change

Leaders may be surprised by the specifics of altered circumstances, but a resilient leader is not surprised when confronted by the notion of an unforeseen challenge. Organizations must build the capability of comprehensively assessing risks at a micro- (e.g., loss of a key supplier) and macro- (e.g., new federal regulations) level, scenario planning how to respond to various circumstances should they arise.

It requires candor among leaders across functions and business units to honestly discuss risks and mitigation tactics. While it is not feasible to cover every possible scenario when contingency planning, the practice of identifying risks and planning mitigation builds knowledge as well as “muscle memory” to help your organization be ready for the unexpected. 

3. promote transparency

Candor comes easier to organizations that default to open and transparent communication across all levels as an essential part of their culture. Ray Dalio, co-founder of Bridgewater Associates, famously promoted what he called radical transparency, which required that “people said what they believed and saw everything.” One way this was achieved was by recording every meeting and making them available to all employees. He argues that this allows for the proliferation of ideas and diversity of thinking that has spurred Bridgewater’s success.

For a homegrown example, Credera CEO Justin Bell, and other senior leaders, provided weekly video updates to all employees since we first began working from home last March. These have kept us informed across geographies and home offices, assuaging early worries through frequent and honest conversations about the health of our business and planned actions.

In short, open lines of communication allow for an easier flow of ideas, break down silos, and instill trust across an organization. Each is critical in times of crisis.

4. create space for innovation

An organization that both formally and informally rewards innovation is exponentially more likely to successfully innovate. Innovative cultures have been fostered in various ways such as Google’s mythologized 20% policy and Patagonia’s “let my people surf” ethos. Google’s policy encourages employees to pursue passion projects with 20% of their time, and Patagonia’s policy encourages employees to take advantage of the good surf, knowing that good ideas aren’t limited to time in the office. Both of which work toward the same goal of creating space for employees to think outside of their job descriptions and to foster ideas and pursue passion projects.  

Of course, simply creating space is not enough. Building structured processes for learning how to innovate will provide the most value to an organization by creating a path from ideation to execution.

Times of uncertainty will almost certainly require an organization to stretch norms and think creatively to be successful. After all, unexpected crises could require you to shift supply chains, marketing campaigns, product strategies, or all of the above. Fostering a culture of innovation now will pay dividends when the next curveball comes at you.

5. empower your people

Today’s workers are increasingly tasked with more complex and abstract challenges, a shift from the pure production mindset of the past. Inversely, automation threatens numerous jobs, while leaders face internal and societal pressures to not reduce workforces. These combined trends reinforce the need for an organization to invest in its workforce by creating opportunities for workers to develop new capabilities that meet both near-term and future needs. Amazon, for example, announced that it plans to spend $700 million to retrain its workforce to do more high-tech tasks, in an effort to mitigate the effects that advances in technology have on more manual roles.

In addition to building capabilities, organization’s can empower individuals and teams by allowing a degree of autonomy to make faster decisions in times of uncertainty and increased ambiguity. An organization that requires all decisions to pass through multiple hierarchical levels will struggle to react quickly when it’s most needed. To eliminate these bottlenecks, organizations must assess where individuals and teams can be trusted to take decisive action to move things forward, in addition to ensuring they have the skillset to do so.

6. celebrate wins, big and small

Wins may prove fewer and farther between during times of crisis or uncertainty. Begin fostering a culture of celebration today that acknowledges the everyday wins, whether they are accomplished by an individual, team, or organization. This may be as simple as a shout out on Slack, virtual toast for winning a new account, welcoming a group of new hires, fulfilling a big order, or simply making it to the end of the quarter.

Gratitude and celebration may be the encouragement folks need to keep leaning in and showing up when circumstances get fraught.

where to start?

We certainly aren’t out of the woods yet in relation to our current pandemic, despite promising news of vaccines. However, a steady state is coming, and uncertainty will once again be on its heels.

Consider which of these foundational components for organizational resiliency you can begin developing and refining today. Start with ensuring your organization is anchored to a unified purpose, and work from there to embed proactivity, innovation, transparency, and empowerment to best meet the next challenge. Each of which will help your organization communicate a clear direction, while promoting the flexibility that will undoubtedly be required to get there.

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