Building resilient systems

“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new.” – Socrates

As with much ancient wisdom, the above still very much rings true, and maybe now more than ever as the speed of change increases exponentially. It is even more pertinent given that we are not only looking to disrupt, but also to manage the gaps that the different speeds of human and technological change create.
We learn from author and organisational consultant William Bridges that there is a need to pass through the three stages of an individual experience during change: Ending What Currently Is, The Neutral Zone and The New Beginning. For me, going through transitions is about inquiry, being with yourself in the different stages, and dismantling your armour one self-limiting belief at a time. If I take this to an organisational level, it means scaling this activity and normalising the framing of inquiry, asking curious questions as a healthy and recognised way of being at work.
Transitions are almost always signs of growth, but growth is not linear in a figurative or indeed a natural sense, depending on the analogy. Let’s take the changing of the seasons, given that we have just stepped into spring. Spring represents new beginnings and is the season during which the natural world revives and reinvigorates after the colder winter months. During spring, dormant plants begin to grow again, new seedlings begin to sprout, and hibernating animals awake. However, the system has been prepped and things have long been going on behind the scenes in preparation and anticipation of these new elements. This reminds me of the quest for sustainable change in organisations, and how to anchor changes in mindsets and behaviour.

Leaving room for emergence

One of the first signs that spring has sprung is the presence of tree buds. A plant’s buds act as a shield for the delicate flowers inside. Flowers of different shapes, sizes and forms come with individual and distinct protection. Throughout winter, these buds remain closed and dormant – just like people’s talent in some organisations – surviving the cold until their time comes to thrive in the spring, when they emerge vibrantly from their compact casing. To emerge from this casing, we need to intentionally do two things: create the conditions for the casing to drop and create the conditions for the bud to open and develop according to its innate potential. This resilience is important for each individual but also collectively to enable a more adaptive mindset.

Let’s take the hypothesis that in fact, our journeys are never ‘finished’, so to speak, and that an organisation or a team is a human system in constant flux. In the Buddhist cosmology, the concept of transience is described as the repeated cycles of formation, continuance, decline, and disintegration through which all systems must pass. By embracing the transience of life, we open ourselves up to new possibilities and experiences. If everything is transient, we need to stop holding on and let things unfold.
This shift in mindset allows us to see obstacles as stepping stones and opens up wells of creativity and curiosity that allow us to let go enough to actually see the gaps that we need to bridge to take people with us, and to start thinking differently about how to do that. If we take this analogy to the idea of building collective resilience in organisations, this can be applied to the ‘adoption’ of new products, new tools, and new processes. The key word here is ‘new’, bringing with it the need for humans to adapt to said ‘newness’. Humans need continuity and the ‘known’ to stabilise us as we walk boldly into the unknown, a space that feels more vulnerable and more uncertain but possibly more exciting. This north star is often purpose, as executive business coach Julian Roberts explains in our recent podcast (listen here): in times of chaos or uncertainty, bringing teams back to their purpose is a great way of anchoring them in a common objective and laying the groundwork for adapting and creating collective resilience.

image : Lilia Daffi : Human Systems Practitioner programme

Understanding resilience

Resilience is frequently used interchangeably with adaptability and coping, yet these are two very different things and almost polar opposites – one is about struggling to survive, and the other is about adapting to thrive. Resilience is not often seen through a more creative lens. If we dig a little deeper, there are four main types of resilience that we must nourish to support ourselves during difficult times: physical resilience, mental resilience, emotional resilience, and social resilience. Two well-known and much used analogies for resilience are water and ants. The former is used particularly because its droplets flow constantly, patiently moving around or through whatever might be in the way and building new and innovative ways of surviving, adapting and thriving. The latter involves a colony that is resilient because a thousand little creatures, each following its own simple logic, come together to move objects ten times their own weight to recreate structures, and carry on when disruptions occur – like water, they find ways round the obstacles. This can be likened to moving from force to flow, not struggling individually but making a collective effort, shifting from ego to eco and essentially taking the risk of failing and moving from a stance of knowing to one of learning. Without this shift, we cannot leverage innovation and potential in our teams.
So how do we go about building individual resilience whilst remaining open to collective resilience? As ever, it starts with knowing how to build your own resilience before you can motivate and inspire others. We must build up our stamina to pursue change and challenge the status quo, creating communities of deliberate practice (e.g. lunchtime running clubs, peer learning through mastermind sessions, regular check-ins) to get curious about a different way of working. The key to sustainable change is not only encouraging people to unapologetically become the best version of themselves, but also to collectively unlock the means to make this sustainable.
One of the most familiar feelings in today’s world is that of ‘overwhelm’ – overload of information, overload of tasks, overload of pressure, overload of expectations and general ‘busy living’, more particularly for women who try to ‘do it all’. Being super busy is often seen as being good for building resilience and adaptability, but actually being busy all the time can also be a defence mechanism and add pressure to the system, triggering depression, burn out and overload. Being intentional about how to formalise and stave off the different overwhelms is key to understanding our own map of resilience. This is never a linear process; it is always a bigger system, and we never really ask ourselves the inquiry questions – either individually or collectively – to allow us to sit in these distinct zones and move through the process.
Humans transition and manage change through a combination of psychological, emotional, and behavioural processes and it all starts with the individual: knowing who you are, how you manage your ego, how you manage your fears and being ready to take on the courageous mantra of discussing these subjects openly with peers and team members. How can we be collectively resilient as we move towards teams and systems? How can we visualise and define the gaps we need to bridge?

Bridging the gap

Transitions are hard. Building bridges between old and new, digital and human, binary and complex, the individual and the collective, is hard. We move through the different steps from survive to strive, where we build an understanding of the landscape, what it means for us, and what we are leaving behind as we progress. Then we move from Strive to Thrive, where we use individual and collective efforts to apply a more creative and curious lens through which we dare to try things out, learn together and build the necessary channels. Then finally we move from Thrive to Flourish, where we create a system that allows us to thrive in a sustainable way: we collaborate when necessary, we understand the systemic landscape, we constantly check in with the different parts of the system and we move forward accordingly.

Stepping from a more cognitive into a more intuitive approach can allow us to really connect with ourselves and our emotions and see things in a different light. Stepping out of autopilot and familiar patterns, which serve us well for getting things done and when things are going well, is key, as it doesn’t allow us to be in the present moment. It doesn’t allow us to see other possibilities or different ways of doing things. You do not need fancy methods or tools to do this, just a good dose of courage to step away from what you know and into a space where things can emerge. This allows teams to change their interactions, suspend their judgement and literally ‘see’ what is in people’s minds – visualising the outputs is a very powerful way of translating these new ideas. Dave Gray, CEO of Xplane design consultancy and CEO of boardthing, and I talk about this in our recent podcast (listen here), where Dave explains that the art of drawing is not to translate what is in your head, but to let your intuition express itself freely. This is a great way to build collective resilience: the discipline of not following familiar patterns, of suspending judgement and being present, of accepting that you may not know the answer and trusting the process to see what emerges. These are all intentional practices that will create the conditions for adaptability and agility.

Essentially, all cultures and leaders are at different stages of maturity and resilience, at both individual and collective level. My experience of digital transformation was the light bulb moment for me on this subject, when I realised that the gaps between what was on the PowerPoint slides in terms of technology, data and process, and what that meant for the culture, for leadership and for ways of working, were immense and totally disparate depending on:
–       where you sat in the organisation (operations/support functions/HR/innovation);
–       which generation you belonged to;
–       what your experience and mindset were;
–       the existing organisational culture and ways of working.

I started thinking about how to manage these gaps to create a sustainable result and how to simplify communication for further understanding to pave the way for the adoption of sustainable behavioural change going forward. This process builds not only resilience but also intentional habits, allowing leaders to calibrate their deployment approaches and cut the organisational pie into ‘bite-sized chunks’. There are three distinct stages:

·      Awareness of the gap and the change that needs to happen. What does this mean for the way I show up, the way I work and the way we need to work as a team? This will often trigger emotions such as resistance, fear and uncertainty, but also maybe curiosity and excitement.
–       Use these emotions to tease out the opportunities and challenges, building trust as you go through the process.
–       Create awareness around what the new initiatives bring to the current working practices and culture.
–       Understand the fears and assumptions that are keeping people from making this transformation happen.

·      Understanding how to pilot the new ideas and involve people in understanding what different value creation brings and where they can bring their value to that collective process.
–       Actively bring my input to this process.
–       Engage others to do the same and work together on piloting these ideas.
–       Give people the possibility to apply what they’ve learnt, empowering them to work differently.

·      Laying the groundwork for building resilience as a way of being, constantly iterating on ideas and results with a view to creating flow as opposed to ‘force’ in the system, and really making this way of collaborating the recognised and incentivised way of working.
–       Support the team in their everyday workplace to enact the new solutions, ways of working, and tools.
–       Build momentum through agile communities, use coaching and mentoring to sustain the change and anchor it in the DNA of the organisation.
–       Build the stepping stones for ‘adoption’ throughout the process from the get go.
Ultimately, people are ambassadors for systemic change and creating different habits in the system, and building creative resilience is a great example of this. As we saw earlier, the journey of transformation is in fact never finished. It is a lifelong journey of individual introspection, understanding where we are and where others are in the process, and meeting the organisation where it is at in order to take the collective from Survive to Thrive to Flourish. We must ask ourselves what mindsets are enabling and hindering progress, if we understand the dynamics of system and leader interactions, and if we as leaders are equipped with sufficient courage, patience, curiosity and excitement to consistently role model the behaviours and results we want to see in our teams.
Thank you for reading.
If this resonates with you please share your thoughts in the comments, and subscribe for more thoughts on human systems.
You can also find more subjects like this in my podcast, Let’s talk Transformation, available on Apple Podcast, Spotify, and Google Podcast.
If you’re looking to build and lead agile ecosystems differently, check out our Human Systems Practitioner course :

Suzie Lewis

Discover fresh perspectives and research insights

Sign Up to receive our latest news and transformation insight direct to your inbox!

TransformForValue takes your privacy seriously. We may process your personal information for carefully considered, specific purposes which enable us to enhance our services and benefit our customers. Please note that by subscribing now you may from time to time receive other emails from about events or other activities that we think might interest you.