In a world of growing uncertainty and mounting performance pressure, it’s understandable that resilience has become a very hot topic. Everyone is talking about it and writing about it. We all seem to want to develop more resilience. But I’m going to take a contrarian position and suggest that resilience, at least as conventionally defined, is a distraction and perhaps even dangerous.
How can I say that? The view crystallized as I sat through a two day gathering several months ago on the theme of resilience. I was intrigued to go deeper into the topic because I had heard so much about it and these were experts from a broad range of disciplines. But the more I heard, the more distressed I became.
What does resilience mean?
Resilience is used very loosely as a term, so there are many different definitions. But across all the talks given in that conference (and much of the literature I have read outside the conference) there is one common theme that can be reduced to a simple phrase: it is the ability to “bounce back” in the face of unexpected shocks. In engineering, it is the ability of a material or structure to resume its original size and shape after being deformed. In systems science, it is the ability to return to equilibrium, steady state or original function after a shock to the system. In social analysis, it is the capability of a social group to absorb disturbance and reorganize to retain essentially the same function structure and identity.
The conservative impulse driving resilience
The common theme of “bouncing back” reveals an intensely conservative motivation – the key goal is to get back to the original state as quickly as possible. This conservatism is reinforced by the kinds of shocks that typically are often the subject of resilience conversations – natural disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes, epidemics or terrorist attacks. In the face of such devastating threats, who wouldn’t want to get back to normal as quickly as possible?
Putting resilience into context
But there’s a key assumption behind this conservatism that deserves to be made explicit and examined. The assumption is that the status quo is good, that stability and equilibrium are good.
Making this assumption explicit helps me to understand why resilience has become such a hot topic in the business world as well as public policy circles. Executives feel like they are under attack. It’s not just about natural disasters or terrorist attacks. It’s much more pervasive and widespread, appearing on a daily basis in thousands of unexpected forms. In this kind of world, resilience resonates. Help me to get back to where I was.
And, in the context of enterprise resilience, the perception of being under attack is very real. As we have documented in the Center for the Edge Shift Index, corporate performance has been deteriorating for decades, “topple rates” are on the rise, life spans of companies are rapidly diminishing and volatility is increasing. It’s no wonder that there is intense longing for a “bounce back”.
It helps to make sense of the booming growth on a global scale of the “resilience industry” – books, conferences and experts all willing and able to help executives and their institutions to bounce back. Entrenched interests are desperate for reassurance that they can preserve what they have and will not be vulnerable to unexpected disruptions.
This focus on enterprise resiliency, while understandable, is much too narrow and ultimately dysfunctional and self-defeating. Focusing on enterprise resiliency as the ability to “bounce back” reflects the short-termism that consumes most executives today. It loses sight of the fact that many of these short-term “attacks” are part of a much more profound phase shift at the market/ecosystem level.
This Big Shift is driven by a powerful and ultimately irresistible convergence of two global forces: the deployment and adoption of ever more powerful digital technology infrastructures and a long-term global public policy shift towards economic liberalization, expanding the freedom of movement of people, money, products and ideas across previously insurmountable borders. It has been going on for decades and, by my calculation, will be going on for many decades more.
A key point about this Big Shift is that we are not moving from one static system to another static system. Instead, we are laying the groundwork for growing uncertainty and mounting performance pressure that will become a fact of life, rather than simply a transitional period to be endured in anticipation of new stability.
The danger of resilience
In this context, the conventional view of “bounce back” resilience for enterprises is profoundly dangerous. It simply increases the ability of the institutional status quo to survive when conditions demand a fundamental transformation. It increases the gap between what we are doing and what we need to do. We already face a growing mismatch between the institutions and practices that dominate in business and the needs of the markets and societies that are being re-shaped by the global forces outlined earlier. As long as this mismatch persists, we will face increasing disruptions and stress as we struggle to maintain institutions and practices that are no longer viable. We don’t need to bounce back; we desperately need to move forward.
We need to find ways to harness the mounting pressure we are all experiencing and the unexpected events that seem to bombard us with increasing frequency so they become catalysts for more rapid transformation of our institutions and practices. We need to find ways to grow more rapidly to discover the new institutional architectures and business practices that will help us to turn growing stress into growing success. Ultimately, we face an urgent need to frame and pursue an institutional innovation agenda. In this context, “bounce back” resilience is a distraction and delays our movement forward.
So, what is to be done?
At least in the enterprise world (and I might suggest in all institutional arenas, including education, NGO’s and governments), we need to move beyond resilience and focus on something far more ambitious.
If resilience has been captured by the bounce-back folks, perhaps “adaptation” might be a suitable label. My reservation about adaptation is that it tends to suggest short-term sensing and responding to events rather than a more fundamental and powerful adaptation strategy that recognizes the need to drive long-term change.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his powerful new book coins the term “antifragility” to describe many of the same things that I am trying capture here. I’ll be reviewing Taleb’s book in a blog post that will go up here next week.
Whatever term we use, here’s what our institutional leaders need to develop:
An ability to grow, evolve and thrive over time in the face of short-term performance threats, including the ability to accelerate movement towards fundamentally new functionality and roles in our institutions.
This is not just an opportunity. Given the long-term global forces that are playing out, it is an imperative. Our existing institutions will not survive if all they seek to do is “bounce back” to obsolescence. If we get this right, we will find ways to unleash more and more of our potential as individuals and institutions. Bouncing back will look more and more like the quaint nostalgia that we finally found the courage and conviction to overcome.