What Underpins The Most Resilient Organizations In The World?

Until we reinvent our workplaces to be safe spaces in which to learn from trial and error, we will continue to stifle both innovation and the human spirit.

In the early ’70s, Gordon Moore led the bold shift from storage to microprocessing at Intel and in the process completely redesigned the business. Half a century on, we still feel assured with that ‘chip inside’. Not every innovation needs to be on such a grand scale; incremental improvements like adapting an existing product, improving the way teams work or embracing a different technology  can all help catapult a company. The trick is to bake resiliency into your organizational operating system.

Safe to Try

Most workplaces are not designed to cater to our intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual needs. In a Harvard Business Review study of 20,000 employees around the world, a whopping 60% said that their companies were not meeting a single one of these needs . And your company is no exception.

Until we reinvent our workplaces to be safe spaces in which to learn from trial and error, we will continue to stifle both innovation and the human spirit. As a conscious leader, you must make it easy and effective for your people to learn. When you show care, competence, and courage it sets a blueprint for others to internalize and emulate. When you tolerate power plays, scheming, sabotage, lying, contempt, and aggression, it creates a culture that sways in an entirely different direction. Toxic behavior spreads like wildfire.

When we lead from the heart rather than from hurt, we turn the tables. Humble inquiries replace erratic dictation and questions like these become the norm:

What do we know?
What might we learn?
Is it safe to try?
Are we ready to do something valuable with the insights we gain?

Over time this innovation mindset helps form the cultural and cognitive language that your organization operates on. So when something like the Amazon Fire Phone totally flops, leaders can pick up the pieces. They take the breakthrough voice recognition that was learned and birth Alexa.

The Path Towards Innovation

In work cultures that are resistant to change, experimentation may resemble driving the wrong way on a one-way street. Learning something new and useful on the job and then being disempowered to implement it leads to frustration, resentment or backlashing.

The bedrock of any resilient organization is its ability to create an environment that is highly conducive to learning. Resiliency — being able to bounce forward into shape — means learning and executing as you go. As a leader, your catalytic learning ability requires you to search for new ideas, integrate them and then employ them to progress your company.

Cultivating a learning culture allows your organization to transform itself, explains systems scientist Peter Senge. Our world is just one big lab and our organizations are just experiments we’re running within it. And if our businesses aren’t evolving, then neither are we. While our work grows ever more opaque, leaders that are able to foster and reinforce learning will create those new realities that are essential for innovation.

Unintended Order 

When you build and flex your own resiliency muscle it means you can anticipate weak links, locate tensions, manage stress, mitigate anxiety — and design meaningful interventions. With some slack in your personal operating system, you can practice meeting pressure head-on and convert it into performance.

Every day, we self-select the inputs that are most interesting and relevant to our given situation. We’ve become expert curators of our personal learning systems, working tirelessly to convert information into tacit skills and knowledge so we can continually “perform.” The most important thing you can do to help build resiliency in your people is to destigmatize failure. You can let others fail but not let them be failures.

Admire a flock of birds and see resiliency in action. Amongst the seemingly chaotic nature of such complex adaptive systems is something beautiful: unintended order. 

In Medellin, Colombia only cars with specific license plates are allowed on the road on designated weekdays. This solution to traffic congestion helps workers plan alternative options: public transport, carpooling, taxis or working from home. The result is a better-functioning, more resilient transportation system. The same system kicks in during a pandemic with individuals with a certain birthday allowed out to shop.

You too can borrow the same logic of the ability to predict in systems that are complex whether it’s your own or that of your company. Working with what you know and can learn is ambiguous by nature and the better you can execute while learning, the better you can create, produce and innovate. This requires that you help create psychologically safe spaces, clear and regular communication practices, a keen ability to team fluidly, and access to the right training and support.

We can’t “be” resilient without building and cultivating strong support networks. These are the people, groups, practices, communities and connections that you can lean on and that can lean on you. And to be most effective, networks like this should be diverse. More points of view provide different approaches to adopt and unique strategies with which to preserve and persevere.

With more variation, we ourselves become more colorful, compassionate, self-reliant, flexible and innovative. We learn that we all have the same capacity to thrive in the face of adversity. And as we flex our resiliency muscles we emerge stronger as leaders, teams and organizations.

Jonas Altman
Jonas Altman is the author of SHAPERS: Reinvent the Way You Work and Change the Future (Wiley, Sept 2020). He is a speaker, writer and entrepreneur on a mission to make the world of work more human. As the founder of award-winning design practice Social Fabric, he creates learning experiences to elevate and grow leaders at the world’s boldest organizations.