Early in the pandemic, the owners of a growing HVAC business on Vancouver Island began winding down services. Social distancing requirements limited employees’ ability to visit homes and businesses, work on construction sites and come to the office.
With an already healthy balance sheet, access to Federal support programs and a trickle of business, the owners were able to keep the lights on.
They decided this was a good time to get to many of the back office and management pieces that had been languishing in the previous months, pushed aside to deal with a trajectory of over-the-top growth. They imagined they had at least two to three months of very low demand in which to work on fundamentals.
They didn’t get four weeks.
The company had imagined a long U-shaped recovery and instead found themselves in a steep V. A brief vertiginous fall was followed by an equally rapid, but much longer rise.
This was a perfect illustration of resilience: it isn’t about bouncing back, it is about bouncing higher.
By late fall, the business will have regained all of the ground it lost, and grown beyond its original size.
All while a pandemic is disrupting our world.
How did they do it? How were they able to bounce higher, when many around them were failing, even in the same industry? How did they not only survive a disruptive event, but thrive?
Thoughtfulness, hard work and good fortune play a role. But there are practical tools and approaches that increase the likelihood an organization not only survives a major crisis, but benefits from it. That is the heart of organizational resilience – the ability to benefit from failures and crises. It is all about learning.
Learning to Bounce
The central mechanism of organizational resilience is learning to incorporate feedback from a crisis and grow stronger from it.
A learning organization has the ability to understand rapidly what just happened, why it happened and what kinds of countermeasures to put into place. It is not limited by the crisis at hand – the benefits permanently strengthen the organization. Decision making processes, communication, cultural strength, systems redundancy, and supply chain, for example, are all improved. If the organization is a learning organization it will learn in good times and it will learn in tough times, it will never stop. In fact, some of its best learning will be through crises and failures.
To do that an organization requires two foundations:
A Culture of Learning
No organization is instantly good at learning. Trying to develop that quality while a crisis is already upon you is better than doing nothing, but the risk of failure is substantial. Foundations of psychological safety, transparency and coaching all need to be established to survive, assess, counteract, and adapt. The hallmark of an organization like this is that, at every level, failures are treated as gifts. This attitude is at the heart of the Japanese idea of Kaizen, or continuous improvement. Failures and crises create learning opportunities, they show us what to improve.
The Tools for Learning
Cultural foundations in place, a resilient organization also requires the tools, systems, and processes to learn successfully in the middle of a crisis. This means being data-aware, having well-managed communication tools and networks and the ability to redeploy resources rapidly. The organization’s structure, communications, and management must be designed to maximize learning.
There are tools that support transformation into a resilient learning organization. What will surprise many, and disappoint a few, is how mundane they are. No snake oil, just tools that are often overlooked in our search for the magic bullets that don’t exist.
Clear Values and Objectives
These don’t seem like tools, but they are. The degree to which every team member knows what the game is, whom they are serving and how, how we measure winning, and what everyone’s role is in winning, is the degree to which they will independently do the right thing without looking for permission or directions. Transparency of purpose is a precondition for rapid learning.
What is the first thing to go out the window in most organizations when the pressure is on? Good communication. Whether an integrated military command centre, a software development team on a three-week sprint, or a successful hospitality business, all resilient organizations understand that good communication is a precondition for resilience.
At the heart of good communication are layers of meetings happening at a steady cadence, from daily 10-minute stand-ups to two day deep-dive retreats. Meetings are the pulse of a learning organization.
An Effective Org Chart
Most think of organizational charts, also referred to as org charts, as old-fashioned models of hierarchies and command-and-control structures. A good 21st Century org chart is nothing of the sort. It is a circuit diagram for making decisions. A well designed org chart, and the organizational design it maps out, facilitates the rapid flow of information and fast, accurate decision making.
Done right, it increases independence and confidence, and gives team members the ability to assess, learn, and adapt rapidly even in a crisis.
The last thought to leave here is that, just like the journey of the HVAC business doesn’t stop with the onset of Covid-19, or where it is at present, becoming a resilient learning organization isn’t a once-and-done thing either. A constant recommitment to improving communication, transparency and processes is required to remain resilient.
Clemens Rettich is a business consultant with Grant Thornton LLP. He has an MBA from Royal Roads University and has spent 25 years practicing the art of management.