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What the Harvard Business Review Taught Me About Resilience

I was in the US earlier this year, and during an extended layover I found myself picking up a book. I was in the mood for something educational, instead of my usual fiction or biographical selections, so I chose a collection of articles from the Harvard Business Review. Delay over, I put the book aside, and only recently rediscovered it. I’m glad I did.

One article in particular caught my attention. “How Resilience Works” by Diane L. Coutu. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you everything, but it was a pretty good read, and highly recommended. Coutu brought up three very interesting points about what makes people AND organisations resilient.

Facing Down Reality

Coutu makes the point that those who face the reality of their situations are better equipped to survive. To illustrate, she quotes a US prisoner of war from the Vietnam era who was held for 8 years in a Viet Cong camp. Admiral Jim Stockdale posits that those who prepared for the reality of a long confinement fared better than those with less realistic expectations. Those that were optimistic of being “home by Christmas” were continually disappointed, and Admiral Stockdale suggested that they didn’t survive, in part, because they died of a broken heart.

Morgan Stanley’s response to the 9/11 attacks in New York is another example of this prepare for the worst mentality. Because Team’s services include a High Availability and Disaster Recovery practice, the financial firm’s experience resonates with me.

Of course, we always hope to avoid the horrors that Morgan Stanley faced, but when disaster strikes, the number one priority is human survival. After the previous attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, the business began strictly enforcing the training it gave its employees for catastrophes. Their regular emergency drills were executed with military discipline, and they had three redundant recovery sites for employees who evacuated.

This pre-planning meant that all but 7 of their employees made it out of the second World Trade Center tower as they all executed a well-rehearsed evacuation drill. The ‘extravagant’ measure of pre-prepared recovery sites looked like genius after the fact.

Preparedness in business means looking at the reality of your situation and understanding that your cosy status quo could be disrupted at any moment, for any number of reasons. We have to ask the difficult ‘what ifs’, and find answers. Looking with a cold unemotional eye at your current reality and the things that really make your business function will give you an appreciation of the things you need to protect. It could be people, assets, data, records or any number of things.

Next, look at those things that could cause you to lose your business essentials, and plan for the recovery or restitution of them. Finally, practice the routine until it is an automatic reaction to a business disruption, and you are confident in its execution and outcome.

It doesn’t make you a scaremonger and this isn’t just ‘insurance’ for the business. This is about having a concrete plan in place to ensure the business survives, so it can recover – and isn’t that what resilience is all about?

The Search for Meaning

Many survivors of the Nazi concentration camps, says Coutu, coped with their incarceration and the constant threat of death by developing a sense of purpose for when they were free. Unlike the US military, or even Morgan Stanley, these were regular people who had no special training. Still, their example of resilience is a worthy lesson.

Some prisoners developed a grounding goal that strengthened them against the sadism of their captors. In one case, an Austrian psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl coped by imagining himself giving lectures after the war about the psychology of the concentration camps, to help outsiders understand what went on.

In business we often talk about vision and mission statements, but it’s less common to see companies define their values or purpose. By having a solid set of values to fall back on during hard times we build ourselves an immutable core belief that can see us through seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Such a core system of values can go by many names. Here at Team we call it our purpose – to help our customers capture, analyse, protect and integrate their business data. We keep it clear and simple. Others have much more evocative names. Johnson & Johnson have what they call their ‘Credo’ while UPS have their ‘Noble Purpose’. It really doesn’t matter what you call yours, but having something on which all employees agree is the bedrock of your business gives you a focus when things are rough.

Ritualised Ingenuity

The third element that Coutu identified as an essential ingredient for resilience is an ability to make do with whatever is to hand. She uses a great word to describe the sorts of people who demonstrate this principle of resilience. Bricoleurs practice the skill of bricolage. A French anthropologist coined the term ‘bricolage’, and in the modern sense it describes something that is made from whatever comes to hand. I like the Association for Qualitative Research’s definition of a bricoleur as a “jack of all trades” and bricolage as a pragmatic and eclectic approach.

To me it just reeks of that quintessentially Australian trait of innovation and improvisation. We can fix almost anything with a bit of fencing wire or some duct tape. One of our staffers tells the story of his wartime relative who, in the absence of anything else convenient, fixed bullet holes in planes with chewing gum, which they found went rock hard at altitude. In the best tradition of bricoleurs, the people here at Team Computing are constantly coming up with new and innovative ways to help protect our customers.

The point here for business isn’t that we should choose cobbled together solutions and methods to run our business. The real message is that in times of strife you are better off with people who can make do, who can turn their hand to problem solving using what is available rather than what they desire. Pragmatism mixed with intelligent improvisation will beat dreaming and perfectionism every time in a crisis.

We had a recent incident with a customer that required just that attitude. A very old IBM Power Server on their site had suffered a major outage. Despite our advice they didn’t have their system under IBM maintenance, and when it failed they turned to us. As it happened, we’d just gone through a massive cleanout, and we had about 20 IBM Power machines stacked in our car park.

The machines were due to be collected by our secure recycling partners the next day, but one of our technicians working with this customer somehow remembered that we had a similar machine in the scrap heap that might have a part that might just be able to work. A bit of digging and we found a spare part that saved the day, preventing massive business impact for the customer. Sure it required a bit of re-configuring, and their machine will now never be called standard, but the solution worked and worked fast, buying time until a longer-term solution can be made.

We approach business resilience in a way that I believe embraces all three elements of resilience. We face the reality of the situation – understanding the real impact of business disruption and taking it seriously lets you plan for recovery so much better.

We ground ourselves in a defining purpose – ensuring we focus on the outcome we need to generate for our customers.

We pride ourselves on our ingenuity – hardly any of our DR or HA solutions are what you’d call standard, because our customers are all so different. We innovate and apply flexible thinking to find a better fit.

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