What separates people who survive disasters from those that perish? This is the topic of a book I just finished reading titled “The Unthinkable: Who survives when disaster strikes and why”, by Amanda Ripley. Through extensive interviews with survivors from incidents such as plane crashes and building fires, the author provides an intimate look into the psyche and operating style of those who reacted well in such situations and managed to survive against all odds.
As I read the book, I could not help drawing parallels with how we sometimes react to crisis situations at the workplace. Unexpected disruptions induced by competitors or external factors can be abrupt and information-scarce, similar to modern life disasters. Are there lessons from the latter that we could apply in our professional settings to become more resilient? The following insights from Ms Ripley’s book could help formulate a path.
(True) preparedness: Across the many stories in the book, the single most important aspect that seemed to help the most people survive during disasters was preparedness. I particularly liked the story of Rick Rescorla whose dogged determination to prepare his organization for the unforeseen resulted in one of the most successful evacuations on 9/11. Rescorla trained the rank and file of his company to ensure that everyone knew exactly what they would need to do in case of an emergency. He ensured that the knowledge was deep and the rationale for various processes was well understood. He ran regular drills which everyone complied with, something that is quite hard to accomplish in an investment bank where every minute away from the desk translates to lost dollars. But he persisted, and over a period of many years, built a highly prepared and self-sufficient team. What Rescorla accomplished required sustained investment and commitment from his management to stay the course. And it resulted in a resilient organization that was able to react decisively when the worst scenario unfolded.
Strong institutional memory: A key reason why people don’t react accurately during a life-threatening event is because they mis-calibrate the risk. As people come and go in an organization, they may not have an appreciation for why things are a certain way and what drove past decisions. They can end up questioning policies and processes at a time when speed and decisive intent are critical. To this end, organizations that include their entire staff in risk assessment activities tend to react better during disasters. Yes, this requires a willingness to talk about difficult scenarios, something that many organizations tend to shy away from. However, tapping the knowledge of the larger team can surface all sorts of issues and considerations that only people with battle scars can recall and articulate with passion. Including them creates inter-generational bonds and results in stronger buy-in for policies and procedures that could be the difference between success and failure in a crisis.
Speaking up: The author described an interesting phenomenon called “milling” that happened in the early stages of a crisis. People walked around and tried to group up with others to see what the crowd would do. However, in many incidents, these groups of people just stood around and did nothing, waiting for someone to take charge. When someone did step up, it was usually not an authority figure – rather, it was someone from the larger community who decided to do something because at that instant, he or she saw something that others could not. There is much to be learned from this. In times of crisis, it is likely that the people in command will not have all the answers. As they mill around looking for clues, they will be best served by having a diverse set of people around them who are encouraged to speak up. Fostering a culture where everyone is empowered to step in and take charge can be a huge enabler for survival.
How Can Organizations Become More Resilient?
The British Standards Institute defines organizational resilience as “the ability of an organization to anticipate, prepare for, respond and adapt to incremental change and sudden disruptions in order to survive and prosper.”
Based on the above definition, how resilient are our organizations today? On the evidence, not very. The current Coronavirus disruption has mercilessly exposed many chinks that have crept into our armor. There is a lot of talk nowadays about developing indigenous supply chains, protecting intellectual property, controlling foreign ownership of critical domestic assets, etc. However, it bears mentioning that none of these ideas are new. In order to achieve financial objectives, many companies have made deliberate choices over the years to progressively outsource and restructure their enterprises, because the anticipated benefits were deemed as far outweighing the risks. And in their continued pursuit of profits, companies are now exploring permanent work-from-home policies which will further reduce the human-to-human interactions that form the basis of our learning processes and the hardening of our memory banks. Are we again going too far, too fast?
In my opinion, resilience is fundamentally built on long term thinking. People in resilient organizations eschew the path of expedience and instead play an infinite game. They respect the past and use it to prepare for their future. They display empathy and high clarity of purpose, and are willing to collectively endure the pain of short term disruptions in order to achieve their long term goals.
As leaders attempt to move their organizations towards a more resilient future, they will need to work with their people to honestly re-evaluate what is core to their enterprise, and what knowledge and infrastructure are critical for their long-term viability. And then they will need to truly make the investments that will strengthen these capabilities, with consistency, through thick and thin, over the long haul.
Just like it takes many years to grow a strong tree but only a few minutes to cut it down, it takes a long time to build a strong enterprise and only a few actions to weaken its foundation. As companies explore ways to become more profitable, decisions to cut down long-standing trees will need to be taken with a lot of care.
Before I conclude, I would like to talk about the chapter on Heroism at the end of the book. The author described numerous incidents where someone acted against their best judgment, disregarded the chain of command, and walked into danger to try and save lives. While I was filled with admiration for these heroes, it became quite evident on reading their stories that such an operating model is inherently unreliable and fragile. Some of the stories did not end well, and in many instances, only the people lucky enough to be near the hero survived. The key learning for me was this: if organizations want to become resilient, they cannot depend on statistical anomalies within their ranks to swoop in and bail them out every time there is a crisis. Rather, they must enlist their entire team to build an army of informed and empowered heroes, and leverage their collective strength to navigate the next disruption.