Lately, even before the pandemic, people inside organizations have been more “heads down,” get it done, don’t distract me. With the pandemic adding one more level of stress to organizational life—where people work from a distance, virtually, still intent to make plan, serve customers, develop talent—a new or renewed view of organizational life is emerging, where invention and adaptation of the formerly tried and true can either be encouraged or discouraged by an organization’s culture. What anchors a resilient organization in a good way, offering purpose, connection, and readiness for change?
Throughout history, organizations have come and gone. Some even once believed to be great, have now lost their cache. The best laid plans can fail to contemplate a present created by COVID-19, let alone a future beyond it. A sense of mission and purpose help tremendously as directional calls to action, as long as they stay alive (i.e., in organizational conversation) in challenged circumstances.
We see that the ingredients for resilience live inside all organizations. We can breathe life into them by applying a few principles:
Know you’ll be ok.
I had a long-time client whose business was underperforming after decades of success. Business units didn’t meet their plans, though plans seemed realistic when crafted; underperformance lasted a few years. We worked on diagnosing what might be holding them back, even as they put in place significant changes to processes and structures. With “eyes open” (seeing the results unvarnished), this client kept at it and at it. When asked what kept him going, he said: “I leave no stone unturned, including any sacred cows, and when that’s done, and I’ve done all I and we can, I trust that providence is on my side.” An unrelenting attitude of “we’ll figure this out,” coupled with a realistic assessment of what regrouping takes, positions leaders to lead from optimism as well as clarity. This takes both confidence and humility.
Develop support systems—and know that support systems come in multiple forms, each with its own value.
Support for yourself: Some organizations sponsor coaches for leaders, providing someone to talk to, to reflect on strengths and weaknesses with, to be a sounding board. Leaders sometimes think they are their own best counsel, and often actually are, but having others you can trust to “keep your head on straight” is invaluable.
Support for groups of people in similar roles: Sharing a collective experience as a way to process and make use of it—and not feel stuck with it—also builds a can-do spirit. Good facilitation enables good support versus just wallowing. Finding ways to tackle new challenges as a group, where each member has some accountability to others, puts some muscle behind adaptation.
Support for groups of people in different roles: Well assembled cross-sectional groups enable dealing with different ways of thinking and different perspectives. When this works, these groups act as a microcosm for issue- and opportunity-spotting, and can experiment with new ways to tackle emerging issues before they become real problems. Some experiments work, some don’t, but learning to experiment is a central feature of resilience.
Formally and informally signal that it’s worth taking time to learn from experience, even when time feels in short supply.
Lead by example by shining a light on lessons learned through good communication mechanisms and also by demonstrating that learning, metabolized into behaviors to try, is worthwhile. Communication can include broadcast messages from leaders, brief case examples of ideas that worked and ideas worth trying even if they didn’t work, or small group conversations about feeling exhausted and what to do about it. Do the things you’ve been putting off, and see what happens—turbulence is an opportunity to go for it, as long as you’re making sense of results afterward. Taken together and over time, these efforts build resilience into the culture. Consider enabling an ad hoc group with the job of “listening in” for on-the-ground product or service adaptations prompted by customer connection. Then spread the word.
Take a break.
Paradoxically, more and more tunneling into a problem can yield less and less insight. Frequently, what proves to be most helpful is moving outside the situation, figuratively or literally, by doing something that forces stepping away. Take a bike ride. Watch your kids. Call your mother. Join or start a book club. Force and encourage yourself and others to take the breather that is needed for renewal.
Successful organizations that last across time face setbacks big and small. What sets them apart is what they do with their experience of setback. Setbacks are a time for truth-telling—knowing that the success of the past can become rhetoric for closed-mindedness. At CFAR, we say that feeling bad is natural and okay, with a time limit. When time is up, gather support and tackle next steps until the steps yield the turnaround results you and your organization are capable of.