In the midst of a pandemic, social unrest, and political challenges facing our world, many are turning their attention to organizations and their ability to bounce back from disruption, pivot to address changing workforce and consumer needs, and lead positive societal change. Some organizations have stepped up and met the challenges head-on. Others have either hunkered down or attempted too little, too late.
Why do some organizations succeed—effecting meaningful change—while others can’t seem to make the shift? There are many reasons, but perhaps the most powerful distinguishing factor is organizational resilience. Psychologists refer to resilience as the ability to adapt well in the face of challenges, struggles, and difficulty1. How quickly one bounces back after defeat or tries again after a setback is a measure of resilience. Like personal resilience, organizational resilience can be represented by this checklist:
- Flexibility. As organizations, they recognize the way they have always done things may not work now, in the face of new challenges. They’re able to adapt to the current circumstances, even when those circumstances turn on a dime.
- Vision for the future. Organizations with a strong vision for the future tend to focus more on the goal than the path to get there. As bumps occur, they maneuver around them to continue moving forward. They can quickly bounce back because they recognize that the path is not as critical as moving toward the goal.
- Optimism. Resilient organizations treat setbacks as temporary, specific challenges that can be overcome. They don’t expend unnecessary energy questioning everything they’re doing and throw their hands up. Rather, they break down the problem to tackle it bit by bit, holding on to the confidence in their teams and capabilities.
- Openness and inclusion. Inclusive cultures that welcome diverse opinions and a willingness to try new ideas are better positioned for resilience. Isolation is limiting and makes challenges feel bigger. By cultivating diversity and inviting a wider range of perspectives, enterprises can tackle challenges from multiple perspectives, allowing them to test many ideas quickly, learn from the results and iterate, and bounce back.
- Forward-thinking. Resilient organizations don’t spend too much time rehashing past efforts, clinging to “the way we’ve always done it,” or fixating on what could go wrong. A balanced view of risk is important, and resilient organizations focus forward by asking, “Why not try it?” rather than saying, “We tried something before, and it didn’t work.”
How do you know whether your organization possesses these qualities? Simply surviving and even thriving in adversity doesn’t mean an organization has what it takes to do it again. Given the right circumstances, some organizations still manage to succeed for a time, despite their greatest weaknesses. An organizational assessment is necessary to truly know whether the enterprise is resilient and prepared for the next big challenge.
Five Indicators for Evaluating Organizational Resilience
It’s critical to evaluate these indicators:
1. Workforce Resilience
If you read the checklist above and thought those characteristics look a lot like individual competencies or soft skills, you’re right. As much as we talk about organizations as living, breathing entities, it’s the individuals within who define their capabilities, personality, and culture. So, for an organization to be resilient, it must start with a resilient workforce—particularly at the leadership levels. Teams pick up cues from their leaders to know how to respond in crisis and uncertainty. Resilient leaders provide the guidance and encouragement to their teams to keep them focused and moving forward.
Leaders can make or break an organization in times of uncertainty.
A formal leadership assessment, diving into these characteristics, can uncover a great deal about the resilience and overall health of an organization. But even when leaders are skilled and willing, systems must be in place to support their actions.
2. Processes and Decision-Making Authority
Well-defined processes are often the hallmarks of an efficient, mature organization. They create consistency and help ensure the machine runs smoothly. But in times of crisis, these processes can become a hinderance to acting quickly, especially when the prescribed procedures are cumbersome. Process-dependent organizations can strangle themselves with red tape. The more steps, layers, and approvals required to make a change or request, the longer it takes to make progress. When every day counts, overly complex processes can be detrimental.
At the onset of the pandemic, some organizations were able to quickly make decisions about equipping employees to work from home, and many had full setups within days or weeks. Others had to run requests up an endless chain of command, complete (virtual) piles of paperwork, and secure multiple approvals before taking critical action to sustain their business. The flexibility leaders have to make vital decisions for their businesses and teams can significantly impact an organization’s success and ability to recover from challenges.
3. Organizational Structure
In conjunction with processes and decision-making, an important part of any organizational assessment is a review of the structure. Structure can have a significant impact on how quickly an organization can pivot to address external challenges or changing priorities by influencing how quickly information moves through the organization and how easily ideas are shared.
Excessive layers of hierarchy can create separation between leaders and the rest of the organization—information takes time to flow through those layers. This includes sharing updates down through the organization, but also getting information back up: ideas, concerns, and feedback. Divisions or groups operating as independent lines of business can face similar challenges, while siloed structures create issues through duplication of effort. When change needs to happen quickly, miscommunication or information bottlenecks can significantly hamper an organization’s ability to act.
Moreover, structure can hinder speedy identification of experts or project teams to address challenges. Not all of these issues require changing the structure itself, but recognizing potential challenges early can allow for organizations to put practices in place to move quickly when necessary.
4. Role Clarity and Prioritization
Change of any kind usually creates some stress. When people experience stress, they tend to revert to the fight-or-flight response. At work, a fight response can look like fixation on the issue, trying to influence uncontrollable circumstances, or turning to self-preservation like brushing up the résumé. Flight can take the form of water-cooler sessions gossiping about what’s going on or withdrawing to “wait it out.” It’s not surprising, then, that the collective may exhibit the same patterns—throwing out a bunch of random ideas to see what sticks or totally hunkering down, waiting for the storm to pass.
Like a strong organizational vision, role clarity helps teams and individuals stay focused on their contributions to the larger effort. Engagement surveys often reveal that leaders have a clear understanding of the mission and vision of the organization, but people in other levels of the organization often have different views. When employees don’t have a clear idea of their role in alignment with the greater vision, it’s hard for them to prioritize their work at the individual or team level. This is magnified in crisis situations: Lack of clarity can manifest in misspending time and resources, bogging down the entire system.
In an organizational assessment, role clarity and alignment to the mission can be evaluated through interviews, surveys, and focus groups. It doesn’t usually take long to uncover misalignment of work, but the good news is that minor tweaks or visioning sessions can often quickly reset the team or organization onto the right path.
5. Technology and Adoption
As we’ve seen across the world, from social movements to the corporate environment, technology can be a powerful change enabler. Regardless of the number of software licenses an organization holds, though, the inability of employees to use technology effectively will always present a major roadblock. When knowledge workers the world over shifted from in-office to at-home environments in 2020, many organizations belatedly realized they didn’t have the right digital tools in place to support them—or that their employees didn’t have the skills necessary to make use of the tools available. Similarly, restaurants and retail businesses without online ordering platforms struggled to survive.
Companies that hadn’t implemented the right technology or the tech adoption programs to upskill their employees before the big pivot immediately struggled with continuity of critical business operations. A thorough technology assessment must be part of any evaluation of organizational resilience.
Internal and External Evaluation of Organizational Resilience
If everyone can agree assessment is the way to gauge organizational resilience, one element still open for discussion is whether internal consultants can effectively conduct that assessment. Although they have the most extensive understanding of the organization, internal consultants sometimes run into interpersonal politics and pockets of resistance when conducting an enterprise-wide review. Over time, they can also develop an insider’s perspective that may inadvertently affect their analysis. External consultants, on the other hand, bring fresh perspective, often employing novel angles of inquiry to reveal the organization’s strengths and weaknesses.
Where possible, it’s a good idea for internal and external consultants to partner in the assessment. But one thing is essential: executive sponsorship and commitment. Leadership’s buy-in and support are crucial to the success of any organizational assessment—and the change that results from it.
Few organizations are fully prepared on all levels for disruptive change, and there’s no shame in having room to grow. Becoming aware of potential roadblocks is the first step to establishing strong organizational resilience.