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A practical guide to resilience

“Resilience” was well on its way to becoming a business buzzword before the COVID-19 pandemic began. As with most buzzwords, it was overused to the point where nobody was really quite sure what it meant; they just knew it was a big deal.

As we stand here today - seeing all of the disruption the pandemic caused - most organizations have learned what resilience truly means. And it means something different to each organization (retailers have different resilience challenges than financial services firms do, and so on).  

For organizations doing resilience right, even a once-in-a-century pandemic did not come as a complete surprise – there have been warnings about potential pandemics for years. But these organizations were far and few between. Most had to reinvent themselves on-the-fly in an attempt to maintain some semblance of normal operations. Even those with resilience plans in place found themselves in this predicament because their planning often focused on the wrong things.

Resilience is about outcomes

Resilience has typically been a siloed discipline where different departments develop their own resilience plans. Once all departments “check the resilience box,” executives can tell the board that resilience plans are in place, and it’s up to each department to keep itself functioning when some sort of disruption hits.

This approach is emblematic of the “inside-out” thinking that has defined resilience to date – organizations focus on maintaining existing internal processes, rather than taking an outside-in approach and focusing on higher-level business outcomes: meeting the needs of customers and other stakeholders. Inside-out thinking strives to restore processes to their normal state; outside-in strives to enable adaptability, so organizations can continue delivering products and services even in times when it is impossible to return to the normal state. The COVID-19 lockdowns provided a vivid example of this contrast: Inside-out thinking would strive to get people back into the office as soon as possible, because that’s how things are supposed to work; outside-in recognizes the requirement to adapt to a work-from-home world so the organization can continue to meet stakeholder needs and expectations.

To define the state-of-the-art in resilience, Deloitte jointly commissioned a report with the National Preparedness Commission, in collaboration with Cranfield University, focused on the practices of organizations recognized to have world-leading resilience programs. Entitled “Resilience Reimagined: A Practical Guide for Organisations,” the report is based on 25 in-depth interviews and four focus groups with leaders of these organizations, and additional insights contributed by more than 50 practitioners and academics.

The theme consistently rising to the top in these interviews is that resilience cannot be an inside-out, department-by-department endeavor. Rather, it needs to be outside-in, where planning begins with the fundamental question: What are the possible disruptions to meeting the needs of our stakeholders, and how do we make ourselves resilient to them? In other words, resilience planning focuses on outcomes, not individual inputs.

Truly resilient companies aren’t fixated on having a resilience plan in place; rather, they are resilient by design. They have built their operating models to be inherently adaptable, so resilience is no longer just about recovery. It’s about thriving even when significant disruptions occur.

In the report, we identify seven practices for strengthening resilience:

Many organizations would prefer not to talk about the different roads to failure. However, doing so actually enables forward thinking that can improve decision-making today, so the company is more adaptable and resilient in the future.

We define “five capitals” in the report (natural, human, social, built and financial). Understanding how they are interconnected can provide valuable insight into the potential impact of disruption.

This gets to the crux of outside-in thinking: Know what is important to your stakeholders and society, and define the essential outcomes that require a high degree of resilience.

Also, determine how these thresholds apply for each outcome. When a severe event occurs, some impact is inevitable, but how much impact is tolerable to society and stakeholders?

Research shows resilience programs face the challenge of balancing defensive and progressive mindsets, as well as resilience designs favoring either consistency or flexibility. None of these is “right or wrong,” but understanding these choices and balancing them appropriately when formulating strategy is a key competency for resilient organizations.

 In addition to defining impact thresholds for essential outcomes, it is important to stress test the organization’s resilience against those thresholds across the five capitals.

Resilient organizations have a culture of adaptation and empowerment.

The key outcome from this report is to clear up the confusion around resilience, and to provide a practical guide for becoming a truly resilient organization. We look forward to exploring the seven practices in more detail in our upcoming blog posts.