If you were to gather 50 risk and resilience professionals together in a room and ask each of them what their definition of “resilience” would be, it is my firm belief that you would receive 50 different responses. Whether we choose the definition from the Oxford English dictionary (“The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties”), or the definition provided by the Financial Conduct Authority (“to prevent, adapt, respond to, recover, and learn from operational disruptions”) the word resilience means a lot of different things to each of us.
For me, the road to organisational resilience is a journey and not a destination – a state of utopian resiliency is not something which can ever be achieved; it must be an objective which is embedded into all elements of organisational strategy, understanding that the goalposts will continuously move as the organisation seeks to learn and evolve along the way.
Organisational resilience can only be achieved where a business chooses to build resilience into all of its functions, decisions and strategies. It’s rare that we hear the question “will this strategy make us more resilient” when discussing a new business offering, for example, or when choosing a new supplier who reduces costs. Increased resilience is often a secondary benefit; however many organisations won’t realise the benefit until an individual working within the resilience function highlights this for them.
Even within the resilience industry, there’s still a topic of debate with regards to resilience – for instance, is this the same as business continuity? – and this doesn’t help us to provide clarity to our stakeholders who perhaps have little to no knowledge of resilience, or business continuity for that matter. Whenever I’m asked what I believe resilience is, my answer is it’s that guardrail which sits around everything in the organisation. To put it bluntly, if an organisation consistently makes decisions which reduce their resiliency, the organisation may not be successful. Not dissimilar to evolutionary biology, the species which adapt to their changing environment and evolve are the species which thrive, and for me the same rhetoric applies to business resilience. My definition of a resilient business is one which prepares for disruption and thrives through unanticipated change. Yes, incident management and business continuity are really key components; however resilience is one layer above and nestles itself into all corners of an organisation.
I’m mindful that we also mustn’t overlook our own resilience when considering a definition of the word’s meaning. To be the individual who is called upon in moments of crisis to lead an organisation’s response takes level-headedness, assertiveness, patience and a huge dollop of kindness to both others and ourselves. It’s sometimes forgotten that when a crisis happens, this impacts those leading the crisis teams too. During covid, the crisis leaders were also there leading their teams through 18 hour days, on call rotas and critical decisions, and we mustn’t overlook the personal toll that can take. I believe it takes a level of conscientiousness to work in our field and often the last individual we seek to support during crises is ourselves. So, when it comes to personal resilience, my definition changes slightly; in addition to thriving through change, personal resilience is also about recognising when you need five minutes headspace to recentre before heading back to the crises and leadership the organisation is relying on you to provide. Covid was instrumental for me finding ways to quickly reset – whether that was taking the time to make a cup of coffee, or even just standing in the garden for five minutes before jumping back on calls. I’d encourage all resilience practitioners to explore their own methods of grounding themselves – for me this is as critical a skill to master as setting an impact tolerance, or guiding someone through a scenario exercise.
To summarise, resilience can mean a variety of things, and I’d suggest that each of us consider our own definition as part of our elevator pitches. Unless we have our own clarity and we’re able to guide stakeholders through a definition, we can never expect the concept to be embedded and it’s my firm belief that unless something is defined and measured, it isn’t achieved. For anyone struggling to consider their own definition of resilience my advice is to think bigger and broader than typical business continuity – resilience isn’t the ability to simply survive, it’s the ability to thrive.
Sarah is a resilience professional and industry speaker, with experience implementing resilience strategies in both legal and financial services organisations. Sarah is passionate about supporting the next generation of industry professionals and has spoken on podcasts, as well as at events such as the BCI's World conference.