Think Resilience – Think Systems

12th June by Mark Powell

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Resilience is less a state then a relational force

Resilience is less a state then a relational force. We may like to think of it simply as a competency or skill and having a relatively simple set of characteristics that can be defined and then understood and put into action. However, is this simplification helpful? And what may be an alternative?

I would suggest that answer could be to think of resilience as a system. Systems have both a seemingly equilibrium and yet exist in constant change. As an example, let’s consider a lake. On the surface relative calm can hide the myriad of activity that is happening under and around the surface. For the lake to be “resilient” it needs a complexity of contradictory forces to live within it.  It needs sun and rain; ebb and flow; incurrent and out current; hunter and hunted; new life and decay.   Our resilience is like the lake. A system that can maintain its healthy self through allowing some ongoing change, by facilitating contradictions, by both repeating yesterday, yet also stepping into tomorrow. The simple concept of yin and yang alive through a systemic support of each other.

So, at an individual level how might you use this systemic perspective of resilience? 

First you have to re-imagine yourself as a system - a multi-dimensional cluster of roles, mindsets and behaviours. You are not one constant thing. Step two is to practice accepting your contradictory roles as a leader – empathetic and firm; relational and task; directive and deep listening; energetic and reflective; caring and tough. Imagine you are a harbour for several boats, not one boat. By building a harbour for these multiplicity of roles within us, we are building our own resilient system. If you have not explored and made use of several roles within a day, then you are probably not building resilience. If you have not experienced multiple emotional states, then hard to be resilient. If you find your style immovable and impenetrable, then life will work its way around you. 

And if this sounds like too much hard work, then we may be able to take a short cut to organisational resilience, through a focus on the existing systems that are in place – business and project teams. The “team” could be the ideal adaptable system that in itself will contain ample breadth of roles and styles if we attended to few important matters.  And these in no particular order seem to be:

  1. An awareness of the natural tendency or orientation towards group think – we need to make a conscious effort to build and maintain diversity if we are to stay resilient.
  2. A focus on fostering a constructive and adaptive culture in the team.
    • Combining a strong performance focus with a sustained reflective learning practices.
    • A culture that has enough challenge to be healthy and yet attends to the humanness and vulnerability that is important to stay resilient.
  3. Attending to the underlying team purpose and clarity of direction to provide enough solid ground on which an agile system can thrive.
  4. A strategic orientation that allows for innovation and change and doesn't get caught in rigid thinking.

Resilience Leadership requires of us to take a systems view of both ourselves and our businesses. The business and project team may be an ideal place to focus our attention as it is a system that is already in place and is used in most organisations as the pathway for executing overall strategic direction. A focus on a few key team practices can accelerate our organisational shift to being more adaptive and resilient.