Of the many lessons we have to learn from the current emergency, perhaps the most crucial one is to ensure that business strategy and operations are founded on resilience.

For years we have been faced with a VUCA world exacerbated by accelerating change and have needed to be prepared for almost anything. (VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, and it’s always seemed to me a useful way of conceptualising the fast-moving, slippery context in which we have to survive.)

“The truth of that observation has been borne out by the way the COVID-19 emergency has unfolded at a magnitude very few had ever expected,” says Michael Davies, CEO of ContinuitySA.

“Of course, most business continuity plans had made provision for a pandemic, but nothing on this scale. Specifically, who predicted that the worldwide response to the crisis would ultimately cause more disruption than the pandemic itself?”

“Judging from our clients’ experience across the continent, there were many lessons that we need to learn from this emergency as resilience professionals. The most obvious: those that acted swiftly and decisively were able to get back up and running more quickly, and the more digitalised an organisation, the better able it was to adapt to radically changed circumstances.”

Allied lessons were the need for robust ICT infrastructure and systems to support remote and home working, and excellent cybersecurity.

But the one that I really want to highlight is that those organisations with practised business continuity plans managed better than those that either had no plans in place or had never rigorously tested and practised them.

This isn’t surprising. Business continuity plans focus on identified risks, but they also recognise that crises do not unfold according to plan, and that the unexpected usually occurs. Good business continuity planning is designed to be adaptable.

And, as anyone who has lived through a crisis knows, having a plan, even if you are adjusting it all the time, is half the battle. But the other half is encapsulated in the word “practised”. A crisis is inevitably a time of high pressure, trying to adapt and then follow a plan when the chips are down is nerve-wracking, to say the least. People who have participated in regular tests and simulations are naturally in a better position to keep their heads and act coolly.

That is why the military conduct so many “exercises” to prepare their soldiers for the combat situation.

Resilience comes from this combination of a plan, the ability to adapt it on the fly and the ability to execute at speed when the risk materialises. The concept also encompasses the ability to recover when a crisis hits; to return to the military analogy, reverses will happen but does the organisation know how to regroup and recover?


Baking resilience into your corporate DNA

So, how does one go about ensuring that your organisation becomes more resilient, better able to respond to changing circumstances and recover its critical business processes when they are compromised? Here are my conclusions:

  • It all begins with the business continuity plan. This must be a living document, constantly improved upon, and incorporated into the organisation’s overall strategy and milieu.
  • Practice, practice, practice. You don’t know if the plan works if you haven’t tested it. More, testing is the only way to improve it and get your people combat-ready.
  • Create a holistic resilience culture. As most CEO’s know, it’s the people that make a company. Plans and processes will be background noise if the employees don’t buy into them. Like all issues relating to culture, resilience culture must come from the top and be managed effectively to become more than a project but inherent in the way you do business. If you get this right, then the organisation will naturally be resilient.
  • Build operational resilience by rethinking your approach to office space. COVID-19 has driven home just how reliant we are on being able to access our premises. There’s consensus that the remote working experiment is likely to herald the emergence of hybrid working models that are themselves more resilient. A total move to remote working is not sustainable, but many of our clients are planning to build in resilience through relocating one third of their staff to our campus, one third to remain on company premises, and one third working remotely.

Doubtless, more lessons will emerge over the coming months, but one thing is clear: the ability to adapt to the unexpected or improbable will itself become a critical business capability.

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