How to build a Resilient Organisation
17 June 2020
Posted by: Peter Coesmans
The COVID-19 crisis forces us to organise differently. It brings uncertainty, ambiguity, requires adaptation and flexibility. In particular in health and safety, in education, but also in political decision-making and in providing the necessities of life. And now in the Netherlands, gradually, we are preparing for this crisis to continue for some time to come.
The Netherlands on ventilation
With COVID-19, some people end up in intensive care and kept on a ventilator to give their body the opportunity to recover. The Dutch economy is more or less on a ventilator by the economic measures the Dutch government has taken ( "three months, and we can repeat that”). The goal is to give our economy, our organisations, the opportunity to recover, to adapt. And we must take full advantage of this opportunity. Because, as said before, we are now forced to reinvent our organisations.
Jasper van Kuijk (a Dutch publicist) recently wrote in a Volkskrant article about how many organisations today mainly looked at improving efficiency. How that way of organising now means that the flexibility, the resilience, of many of our organisations has tremendously decreased. With a shock, we have entered a world that is unpredictable, where we can no longer calculate the 'right’ way forward. There is no assurance that the actions we have taken have the right effects, because each action spins off unexpected behaviour. Which again needs some new actions. So, we must accept that every action has unwanted side effects, but this should not prevent us from acting on our best guess. Acting late is not a valid option either. By the way, this is of course not meant to be a license to do just do something without thinking.
What do we see?
our health care is adapting to a huge challenge in this COVID-19 crisis . The number of patients, but also the severity of their symptoms is increasing alarmingly. And so, the Healthcare sector in the Netherlands has quickly organised itself differently. Focus on what is needed, on providing added value. Don’t lose time in following administrative procedures but provide care! No ‘specialism first’, but all hands on deck, specialists for specialist tasks and generalists to keep things going. Experiment within the ‘real’ rules (not the administrative rules): can we reuse used mouth masks by sterilising or cleaning them? Separating clean and dirty areas, work with semi-permanent teams. Responsibility per room or corridor (rather than per discipline). Several times per day assess what the foreseeable future (sometimes hours or days) looks like and how the challenges can be addressed. People doing the work determine what happens, ‘management’ ensures that they are facilitated with square meters, beds, equipment, doors, mouths, glasses, childcare. Smart decisions of what needs to be done in the workplace (care , cleaning, ensuring safety and health ) and what can be done better centrally (facilitating space, providing face masks, etc. ). People doing the work use their talents, management supports them in this. So that action can be taken quickly and adjustments can be made quickly. A typical feature of a resilient and flexible organisation.
The example of the schools is also illustrative. They are rapidly learning how lessons can be delivered through new technologies, how to ensure safety and attention. Not too strict on keeping records, even dropping some school tests. Focus on what is really needed, often re-structure within hours or days and continuing to make learning possible. And at the same time still physically caring for the children who need additional care. The entire organisation is back to what they once stood for, focused on its role in society, its goal.
Experiments are also being conducted with political decisions. Politicians are rapidly learning and adjusting. Additional decisions are made weekly, sometimes daily. And of course there are always critics who “know better”, but let's face it: the world is unpredictable , and “I told you” is the most banal thing you can say right now. Surround yourself with experts, make informed choices and keep a close eye on their effects and adjust them as quickly as necessary. Criticism, opposition has an important role, namely pointing out how it can (possibly) be improved, adding extra information, preventing tunnel vision. This way you are agile in an unpredictable, unpredictable world.
The government and RIVM (Dutch expertise institute on public health and environment) balance between the number of hospital beds, the number of fatalities / those suffering from COVID19, economic losses and social sustainability. And that at a time when the effect of measures now comes much later , so you are steering almost in the blind. You cannot test every measure you take. To wait until you are sure, 'analysis paralysis ' is unacceptable. So you will have to be informed by experts, learn from what is happening in other comparable places in the world, learn from previous experiences with other situations, and then act. That takes (political) courage.
Many people are now working at home, with many organisations finding out that this is actually fine. People are not 'human resources', but social beings with a well-developed sense of responsibility and brains. People who prove to be perfectly capable of getting their work done in these changed, extreme circumstances, still providing added value. Would they suddenly not be able to do that under more normal circumstances? And these people turn out to be fine without all kinds of processes, procedures, rules, management, directives etc . Just by acting independently, based on a sense of responsibility, combined with knowledge and experience.
Not everything goes well all of the time (but let’s argue it never did), and let's be honest: to be at home, provide home school, and only communicate with co-workers and loved ones using a screen, we all are still in the process of getting used to this. Most of us really suffer emotionally from the lack of social and physical contact. We recognise things get a little more difficult, both in business and in private. And how, surprisingly or perhaps unsurprisingly, most goes well. Building a society, an organisation, on people working relatively independently, appears to be possible. Only where people are overwhelmed, incapable, help should be provided. To prevent lacks in learning, to support those who cannot live without proper support. Solidarity and (central) coordination are required in these situations. And only in these situations.
Examples of organisations that have gone through this earlier
Many organisations, in recent years, have been dealing with increasing uncertainty and unpredictability. Not because of a crisis like COVID-19, but because there had to deal with major shifts in their ‘ecosystem’. By an ecosystem I mean the full situation in which organisations operate: with their suppliers (the 'supply chain'), their customers and clients, their competitors, their social context, their physical environment. A sustainable, living, adaptable, resilient ecosystem is constantly evolving, constantly adapting to changes inside and outside that ecosystem. Sometimes fast, sometimes slow. And of course, sometimes ecosystems perish completely or partially because the requested adaptability cannot be provided.
We have seen organisational ecosystems change, due to changing customer demands, changing norms in society, new technological possibilities, system disruptions. We all experience this and have the feeling it’s all going at a moderate pace. But when you compare the situation of late 2019 and 10-15 years earlier, you will see big differences. The financial system, transport, communication, food, sustainability and energy, substantial changes everywhere.
Many organisations have started looking for other ways of organising. Answers have already been found. And (fortunately) we also see these answers reflected in the current crisis. Also, the problems encountered by these flexible, resilient organisations are reflected in the current period of the corona measures. But now, necessarily, at a much faster rate.
What can we learn?
I do not pretend to have ready-made solutions for all organisations of the future. I see a number of things that I have seen more often in flexible, resilient organisations, which I want to draw your attention to. Perhaps to find inspiration, a way forward?
- Accept the unpredictability and unpredictability of the situation. Do not seek salvation in ‘false’ security, but in flexibility and resilience. In small scale operations (which also exists in large organisations!) and customer focus, instead of up scaling and process focus.
- Doing the right things is more important than doing things right. Effectiveness is more important than efficiency. It is not either .. or, find the right balance!
- Experiment (but be aware of what can go wrong), and learn. Don't think you can calculate everything up front, because you can't. Allow yourself to make mistakes (within limits).
- Trust in people, collaborating and cooperating in small (‘multi-disciplinary’) teams of generalists, working on assignments they can handle (1 corridor, 1 room). Aided by specialists. People are not human resources.
- Focus management on facilitating these teams, not on checking (checking actually costs more money ... but it would go too far to elaborate now). Centralise wisely. Administration focuses on learning and improving, not on controlling.
- Organise safety nets where necessary, for those in need.
- The main purpose of your organisation is to achieve added value in and with your ecosystem. This results in meaning and focus, which people need to be able to work independently. Take your role in your ecosystem.
- People like to be in close proximity and need to work together. With the current tools, it appears to be working out relatively well, perhaps even better than many people had imagined. But working from home is not a solution for everything.
Perhaps some of these ideas resound, perhaps some give you shivers. While working on the future of your organisation, see if you can use them, they might help you look from another perspective. It will certainly provide value, if only to reassure you that you’re doing the right things. The ideas presented here are far from new or ground breaking, they have been around and have been successfully applied in quite some organisations. They might even help you!
Note: this article is based on the Dutch situation, but probably translates to other countries.
See original article here, published on LinkedIn April 23, 2020
Guest blogger bio
Peter Coesmans guides and helps organisations going through significant, sustainable changes. He is director international for the Agile Business Consortium.