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Buzzword Breakdown: Organizational Resiliency

Resiliency is a hot topic in organizations today. Yet in all the talk, I have yet to hear anything about how to actually do it. We can’t talk our way into resiliency, so let’s dig into some real actionable steps.

First, some definitions:

Resiliency is the ability to withstand difficult conditions. Think of the reed that bends but doesn’t break.

Recovery is the ability to bounce back and refocus after a setback.

Organizations and Individuals need both resiliency and recovery. Resiliency may reduce the need for recovery, but life happens, so we need to be able to recover.

Organizational Resiliency is not simply a collection of Resilient Individuals. I’m all for resilient individuals, but all the individual resiliency in the world doesn’t add up to a resilient organization. These are two different things.

Consider these definitions:

Individual Resiliency: The ability for a person to manage their emotions in difficult conditions.

Organizational Resiliency: The ability of an organization to be flexible and adaptive in changing conditions.

The belief that a collection of resilient individuals can create organizational resilience is not only false, but it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because focusing on individual resiliency shifts the burden of responsibility from the organization onto the shoulders of the individual. It’s like saying, “Hey, we are going to work you to death, so you’d better learn to deal with it.”

It’s wonderful to create conditions for individuals to pursue their own resiliency; encourage meditation, promote downtime, support personal growth, etc. But don’t mistake individual resiliency for Organizational Resilience.

Resilience vs Fortification. I often hear the belief that organizations can build resiliency through what I’ll call “fortification.” It sounds like this: “Close the gaps in our process”, “Our managers are right… a lot”. Yes, I’m looking at you Amazon.

Seeking perfectionism is the exact opposite of resilience. When you build for perfection you create rigidity. (and to be clear this isn’t about “perfection” in product quality, it’s about how we operate) If you develop an organization where no one can ever be wrong, then when something inevitably does go wrong, people are not equipped to handle it, and instead, it results in fear and fire drills.

A client I work with encountered a situation where, in response to an ad-hoc customer request, a communication went out that contradicted prior agreements. In the past, in order to avoid this ever happening again, the company built quality checks and approvals around every communication. The additional layers of process ensured that the problem never happened again, but it slowed the company’s time to money. Worse, it didn’t reduce the number of things that went wrong. New problems kept cropping up. So this time, I suggested that instead of continuing to layer on process and approval, they focus on sharing information so that everyone could make better decisions. Information sharing was a condition for resiliency. As a result, problems lessened, and the fire drills quieted down.

There are a million things that can go wrong. Instead of accounting for each of them, create conditions so you can handle all of them.

Create Conditions for Resiliency. You can’t foresee unforeseen problems. But what you can do is create processes and skills to look for, and deal with, unforeseen problems.

Sense and Respond: I ask new clients these questions about how they sense and respond to change:

“How do you know when you need to pivot?”

“What happens when market conditions change?”

The answer is usually very ad-hoc. Someone finds out and needs to set up a meeting with the right people. And they proceed as if it’s a one-off, trying to force-fit a solution into the existing process flow.

What if you had a forum where anyone could raise a potential market disruption? What if there was a clear process on what to do with the intelligence that every single team member has the potential to stumble on?

Companies have untapped potential to sense and gather information. But even more, they need a way to process that information when it comes in. Building ways to sense and respond creates resiliency.

Handling problems:

“What happens when something goes wrong?”

When I ask this question many new clients describe a process of scrambling, setting up emergency meetings, finger-pointing, etc. While it’s impossible to solve for the unforeseen, what we can do is get good at knowing how to deal with it. Toyota has a policy that anyone can pull the cord to stop the production line when there’s an issue. The issue is then triaged, resolved and the line is restarted. When I first heard this, I assumed the cord was pulled one is a great while. But in fact, it’s pulled 500x per day! It’s standard process to resolve issues.

Getting good at handling problems doesn’t mean that you stop fixing the root causes. But it does mean that you can prioritize permanent fixes for common and/or costly problems, and stop over-engineering fixes for things that rarely happen.

Create Conditions for Recovery.

Things go wrong. Sometimes when things go wrong people get angry. According to The NeuroLeadership Institute’s David Rock, uncertainty is one of the top conditions that can hook our threat and reward responses. I believe that people get angry because there is no clear path to resolution and fear sets in. To create conditions for recovery, we need a structure to deal with problems, not the answer, just a container to hold them.

One way my clients do this is through an “obstacle backlog”. When people see things, current or future, that can slow or stop their work, they publish it in a list of obstacles. Some of these may be escalated, others they may address themselves.

Another great structure for recovery is the daily standup (or touchpoint). Some teams will use their daily standup as a place to raise issues, and make a plan to triage them. It’s a great way to shed light on problems early and quickly triage them.

From a cultural perspective, I encourage teams to establish norms on how they will be with each other when they get stuck or fail. One organization decided that regardless of where the problem originates, it’s owned by the team. This alleviated all finger-pointing and quickly moved the team into collaborative problem-solving. Time to recovery was drastically reduced when everyone owned the problems.

The key to recovery is to create space for it. There’s a comfort in knowing that we know how to handle problems. And that comfort creates the conditions for smooth resolution.

Diversity builds Resiliency. The Aspen tree is a great example of resilience through diversity. An Aspen is not a single tree, but actually, an organism consisting of a grove of trees, all interconnected at the roots. An Aspen grove consists of new saplings, middle-aged trees, old trees, and decaying trees. This diversity creates an ecosystem that keeps the Aspen grove resilient because there are always trees at all stages of life. A forest fire may kill older trees, but there are always saplings ready to sprout.

In organizations, we can build for diversity by including what I call “diverse diversity”. Diverse diversity means including many different types of diversity; race, gender, nationality, but also diversity of thought. The more diverse your organization is, the wider the range of situations it can handle, the wider the breadth of the “sensing.”

Recent conversations in organizations have been focused on creating diversity. The complementary conversation needs to focus on how we maintain diversity once we create it. How do we make space to hear the thoughts and ideas of those with different worldviews?

Leading for Resiliency. In most organizations, the leaders are the only ones who can create the conditions for resiliency. Process improvement teams, HR, communities of Practice (CoP), and even consultants like myself, can teach concepts and techniques, but the leader is the only one who can activate resiliency on the ground.

How does the leader activate resiliency? It’s like gardening; the leader first creates conditions for resiliency, pulls any weeds that sprout up (remove obstacles), and then continually nurtures the plants so they flourish. The flourishing is encouraged by ensuring that the practices are continually moving toward the intention, instead of simply forcing compliance.

A leader of a resilient organization continually asks the team “How is working for us? What would make it even better?” The leader serves the team by either removing obstacles or building structures to help the team become more and more resilient. The leader does not direct the work or force compliance, as those activities lead to lower resilience.

Conclusion. Organizational resilience is not achieved through individual resilience, and you can’t talk your way into resilience. Leaders need to create conditions for resiliency by creating structures for sense and response, handling issues, recovery, and welcoming diversity.

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