The trouble with Consultants is that if you ask them to comment on a particular topic, they will offer you several opinions. Take resilience for example (why not – that what I was asked to write about) what springs to mind when you think about the word resilience ?
Our most recent history (apologies to our non-British readers here) colours resilience with a tinge of Churchillian defiance. A two-fingered salute to adversity whilst the other hand holds a lead tethering an implacable Bulldog.
We even borrow terms from sport – a resilient defence is one which keeps out every attempt to break it down. Resilience has come to mean tough, more than anything else. Granite is resilient. Rock hard, impervious to the elements and capable of withstanding eons of wind and rain. Resilience is handmaid to Determination and close Companion to Stubbornness in the face of impossible odds.
Stonehenge is resilient. Admittedly it’s not made of granite per se (allow me some poetic licence here) but there it is – a peon to the durability of rock – and we’re not talking Gene Simmons. Truth be said I’m buggered if I know what it was originally intended to be (similarly with Gene Simmons) but there it is today, testament to the ingenuity / perspicacity / folly of our Neolithic ancestors. The third little piggy house still standing despite the huff and puff of history.
Cockroaches are also resilient. Capable of withstanding the best efforts of hotel and kitchen cleaners or the worst that Pyongyang might throw at them. Survivors. You don’t have to like them but you do have to admire them as they’ve been hanging around for over 320m years.
Anyway, I digress. Slightly. Actually I don’t at all. The actual definition of resilience is more akin to “bouncebackability”. It’s comes from the original Latin meaning to jump back and is more of a reference to the characteristic of returning to original shape after deformation.
The perfect exemplar of resilience therefore could therefore be the sphincter muscles. Don’t believe me ? Look up “How we fart”. I guarantee your next dinner party will not be dull. Short lived maybe but never dull. No, what we need here is a definition of resilience when applied to a business. Try that topic of conversation at your next dinner party and I can guarantee it will be also short lived. And very dull.
So is resilience an admirable quality for a business ? Let’s return to our cockroach. In Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” the protagonist Gregor wakes up one morning to find he has been transformed into a giant insect (most commonly held to be said cockroach). As the lynch pin of the family’s income stream, Gregor’s mother and father and his sister rely on him to bring home the bacon – something Gregor would find a little challenging considering he is a fully paid up 6’ member of the insect family Blattodea (try getting through the turnstiles at Waterloo with 6 legs and an unfeasibly large 10 part abdomen let alone a seat on the 8.15. Although I suppose the loo might always be an option).
During the course of events, Gregor retreats further and further into his own private world, growing ever more distant from his family despite longing to still be a part of it. His inability to connect and and engage even on the most basic levels drives people away and he retreats ever deeper into his own self. Even his previously devoted younger sister gradually ceases to care for him. At the point where he does finally attempt to reintegrate, he frightens away the lodgers, taken in to supplement the meagre fortunes of the household. His actions begin to damage the household to the point where even his own parents begin to wish him gone.
Spoiler alert : Gregor eventually dies but remarkably the family survives. Having been forced to economise to cope with the loss of Gregor’s income and find alternative means of revenue they find they have amassed a respectable pot of savings which they can now use to restore their fortunes. Gregor’s sister has also grown and can now consider marriage. The family is happy once more and can move on with their lives now that Gregor has gone. The moral of the story is this : shit happens. Deal with it. Adapt or face extinction. Seen in this context, Metamorphosis is a useful training manual for business owners. And it’s free.
Change is inevitable. What matters is our ability to recognise change and adapt our businesses to cope. After initially deciding to go back to sleep and hope that his new situation is a bad dream, Gregor’s problem in Metamorphosis is his inability to accept the fact that he’s no longer humanoid in form. Even in the face of fundamental changes in his life as basic as the ability to eat, Gregor continues to think as a human and apply the same principles to his life as before.
In contrast, to protect itself and survive the family is forced to change its relationship with Gregor despite his previously indispensability. They bring in lodgers to supplement income – effectively changing their business model to adapt to the new landscape of challenges they face. Forced to look out rather than inward for solutions, the family unit also metamorphoses choosing to connect rather than disengage. Gregor on the other hand allows personal circumstances to dictate his behaviour. He hides away, becomes reclusive and ultimately alienates those who he relies on to keep him healthy.
Darwin wrote that it is not necessarily the strongest or the most intelligent species which survive, but those which are most responsive to change. Gregory eventually dies alone in his room whereas his family thrive, leaner and fitter than before and with new prospects.
Oh no, not Brexit again… yes, sorry, but it’s time for a gratuitous Brexit shout out. Our own future as a country now depends on the ability of our corporate stock to adapt to the shock of the new and find ways to deal with reality. And it’s not just change from outside which threatens – internal shifts also have enormous impact on companies – especially if they are micro or based heavily on a pyramidal structure. Gregor found it impossible to take himself out of the centre of the equation and recognise that far from being the fulcrum, he was in fact simply a contributing factor. That’s a hard thing to do, especially if you have been until now one of the main drivers. Gregor’s reaction to becoming an insect means things can no longer continue as before and new thinking is required in order to survive. In his case it means removing himself from centre stage and accepting a change in the order. Coping with change therefore requires a certain amount of stoicism and self sacrifice. An acceptance of the facts as they stand warts and all even when you don’t like what you see or want to listen to what is being said. If you’ve never read any Marcus Aurelius, now’s the time. It’s a bit bleak sometimes but undeniably pertinent for any business leader. Life is not necessarily what you think it is or want it to be but you have to get on with it. Everything is opinion, not fact. Observations are merely perspective not truth.
Good business leaders can stand aside and view these things objectively, removing themselves from the equation and navigating the way ahead. By recognising what made us good in the first place, holding fast to the belief that class is permanent and outside forces transitory we can return to basic clear thinking and use what we’re good at to find ways to adapt those tools for new use. The final step is to eliminate doubt from within and create a constructive environment which encourages staff to work towards a common goal. Just as in the human body, the sum of the parts is greater than the whole and whilst one organ may be carrying the heaviest burden, fighting the disease involves the whole corporate entity.
It’s rare to find a business which doesn’t deal with crises from time to time so Risk Management should be included as part of the daily routine of any business. It may seem a bit trite but allow yourself the daily luxury of a little quiet time to continually re-assess where the business sits in relation to events both great and small which affect the wider space in which we live – not just the narrow world we inhabit.
Small course adjustments are always preferable to full scale evacuation of the vessel. Just ask Captain Smith.