Building Resilience in an Ambiguous Environment
At the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, one of the memorable stories was from US star swimmer Michael Phelps. ‘Swimming blind’ his goggles filled with water during the Butterfly final, an event that he went on to win. “I didn’t panic,” he said. “I went back to all of my training. I knew how many strokes it takes me to get up and down the pool, so I started counting my strokes I didn’t reach the time I was aiming for, but I did win the race.” Of course, this is a story of great talent, discipline and training – his coach had prepared him for such an eventuality – but given the pressure of the event, the huge expectation and his own personal goals, it is also a tale of great resilience.
“More than education, more than experience, more than training, a person’s level of resilience will determine who succeeds and who fails. That’s true in the cancer ward, it’s true in the Olympics, and it’s true in the boardroom.”
Resilience and Constant Changes in an Organisation
The volume and pace of change in organisations, whilst perhaps not quite an Olympic event, is a constant and relentless cycle. It necessitates resilience from individuals’ time and time again in order to sustain the pace and focus that is needed during a transformation. Beyond personality attributes, such as optimism and humility, the process of building resilience is a well debated and discussed topic. Yet, resilience is still a key challenge and often creates real risk in the delivery of change. In our experience, the key element for embedding resilience lies in an appreciation of the context – one that is shaped by ambiguity.
Ambiguity is the norm in change and also the opportunity. Internal and external factors impact the change process and create an uncertain environment. One of the major impediments to building resilience is often a lack of connectedness as this impacts not only on the individual but also on morale and team dynamics and can lead to a breakdown in communication or working relationships if an individual ‘checks out’ of the process.
So what are some of the key considerations for building resilience in an ambiguous environment?
- Be optimistic – this does not mean that everything is to be seen as positive, rather visualise a successful outcome and ensure this remains the focus in spite of setbacks;
- Analyse an activity at work and see how many alternatives you can come up with;
- Be curious: ask open questions and listen actively;
- Think in reverse: instead of brainstorming how to solve the problem, ask what has caused the problem;
- Hold onto your sense of humour, be prepared to laugh at yourself and with others;
- Take charge of thoughts – as they are not facts;
- Make a note at the end of each day about what went well, not so well – reflect on the note the next morning and make any adjustments/refinements you need to make.
There is no shying away from the fact that resilience is hard, particularly in challenging and unpredictable environments. It is essential to embrace this reality in order to build resilience: this is the opportunity and the common denominator for all involved in change and will provide the basis for success.