Debra van Opstal, U.S. Resilience Project
Coping with Certain Uncertainty: 7 Practices of Resilient Businesses
Debra van Opstal, U.S. Resilience ProjectFebruary 18, 2016

Debra van OpstalSpecial Guest Blog: Conversations with Thought Leaders — Nexight Group believes that solving complex problems requires the collective insight of diverse leaders. In this new feature, we hear from today’s leading thinkers on how to tackle some of the biggest challenges facing our world.

Debra van Opstal
Executive Director, U.S. Resilience Project

Raise your hand if you think the world has gotten a little less predictable. Superstorms and cyber attacks. ISIS-directed or inspired terrorist attacks. An escalating water crisis in Flint. Fast-paced technological change that makes your skills or your products obsolete. Globalization, technological complexity, interdependence, and speed are fundamentally changing the kinds of risks and competitive challenges that every country, community, and company faces.

Welcome to 2016, the Age of Turbulence, in which change and unpredictability are the new normal. Here’s the most important question now: Do these disruptions inevitably cascade into disasters? Not if you are resilient.

Three key take-aways about resilience:

  • Resilience is a capacity to adapt to any kind of unexpected challenge—not just disasters.
  • Resilience isn’t an innate quality. It’s not about who you are, but what you do. Resilience is a strategic competency based on a set of practices and processes that any company can learn and implement.
  • For businesses, resilience needs to be part of a competitiveness strategy—not just disaster management or business continuity plans. In fact, the same qualities that give organizations an ability to flex to meet unexpected disruptions also create business benefits on a day-to-day basis.

Working with dozens of companies as part of the U.S. Resilience Project, I’ve found a clear pattern in the actions that make organizations more resilient.

What do resilient companies do differently?

  1. Develop Risk Intelligence: Humans are naturally optimistic. Research shows that when people look forward, they expect only good things to happen. Too often, we fail to plan for adversity. But very few disruptions happen as “bolts out of the blue.” Most often, the signals were there—but no one was paying attention.
  2. Make Agility a Core Competency: When General Stanley McChrystal was tasked to fight Al Qaeda in Iraq, he said that nothing in the world could outpace the challenger’s one simple advantage: the ability to rapidly, seamlessly, and independently adapt to the environment. The military could get ahead of the problem ONLY if it became comfortable with an ever-continuous cycle of change. McChrystal noted, “By changing ourselves, we found the ability to move with exponentially greater speed and precision, while constantly adapting to external threat factors.”
  3. Keep Employees Feeling Engaged: Engaged employees can be the key to business survival in a crisis—and to the company’s competitiveness the rest of the year. Lest you think this isn’t a problem, the Gallup Organization finds that less than one-third of employees are actively engaged—that is, enthusiastic about and committed to their workplace. Two-thirds are either neutral or actively disengaged.
  4. Create a Culture of Learning: In resilient organizations, learning happens at every level and function, generating a host of benefits. Products, services, and processes can be imitated. But, an organizational structure that encourages new ideas, spreads them across the organization, and embeds them in business strategies cannot be easily reverse-engineered. A learning enterprise is able to evolve with continuously—and sometimes rapidly— changing risk environments.
  5. Build Collaborative Relationships across the Company: Organizational silos are an enemy of resilience. They compartmentalize risk information as well as knowledge and tools. The primary purpose in building strong teams is for competitiveness, not crisis management. Teams can drive innovation and productivity—avoiding unproductive repetition of multiple people working on similar tasks.
  6. Build Ties over the Fence Line: Companies rely on people and organizations outside their walls to help them succeed every day—and often those relationships can be the best shot at surviving a disaster. Getting to know first responders and key suppliers, and engaging with community organizations, strengthens two-way ties that build good will—and willingness—to help during a crisis.
  7. Execute Well: What often differentiates one company from another is not the planning, policies, and procedures they’ve developed, but whether or not they have the operational discipline to execute well. Operational discipline is as critical to disaster preparedness as it is to workplace safety, superior products, and excellent customer service. As noted business strategist Jim Collins said: “A culture of discipline is not a principle of business; it is a principle of greatness.”

The bottom line…well, it is really the bottom line. Resilience is not just another strategy for managing downside risk; it’s a way to make companies—and people—more “future-ready”—able not only to weather turbulence, but also to thrive in spite of it.

Debra van Opstal launched the U.S. Resilience Project (USRP) after 15 years at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, where she was the Senior Vice President for Programs. The USRP focuses on the competitiveness case for investment in resilience and business best practices. She has authored many reports including Transform: The Resilient Economy; Priorities for America’s Preparedness: Best Practices from the Private Sector; and Supply Chain Solutions for Smart Grid Security, and conducted the case study research for NIST on best practices in supply chain risk management.  She chairs the Gerald R. Ford judging panel on Excellence in Reporting on National Defense.