how have businesses successfully navigated the pandemic?

Resilience Tips for the Lab from the Business World

Recent report on how successful businesses have navigated the pandemic offers helpful lessons to lab managers

Rachel Muenz

Now more than a year since its start, the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly shown which organizations were well-prepared for disaster and which weren’t. According to a report published at the end of March 2021, most businesses were not ready to tackle the challenges presented by the pandemic and have struggled with the many changes required. Both struggling organizations and those who have weathered the pandemic well offer useful lessons to lab managers.

What practices do resilient organizations have in common?

The report, "Resilience reimagined: a practical guide for organisations," was produced through a collaboration between Cranfield University, the National Preparedness Commission, and Deloitte in the UK. It involved interviews with four focus groups and more than 50 C-suite level individuals from major companies and offers a new model that includes seven key practices to improve the resiliency of your organization:

  1. Discuss future failure
  2. Consider connected impacts
  3. Understand essential outcomes
  4. Define impact thresholds
  5. Balance strategic choices
  6. Stress test thresholds
  7. Enable adaptive leadership

1. Discuss future failure

Future failure involves a dose of imagination. Teams imagine anything that could go wrong—whether a global pandemic, natural disaster, or cyberattack—and how the organization would tackle the challenge to identify weak points and make improvements to the organization’s disaster preparedness plan. The report, authored by professor David Denyer and Mike Sutliff of Cranfield University, stresses the importance of including a diverse range of viewpoints during this exercise to ensure challenges are considered from all angles. Leaders and their teams should imagine that anything that can go wrong will go wrong, citing the book Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty by Kathleen M. Sutcliffe and Karl E. Weick as a helpful resource. 

Those interviewed for the report who went through such exercises—which involved imagining a disaster had already occurred—found discussing failure helped teams avoid “excessive optimism,” made the fictional event more concrete so staff spent more time figuring out how it could happen, helped “overcome blind spots,” encouraged those with more negative viewpoints to speak up without fearing punishment, combated groupthink, and helped identify early signs of “potentially significant emerging problem[s].” According to the report, such crises are only going to become more common in the future, so imagining the many ways an organization can fail will be critical for its future success.

2. Consider connected impacts

Lab leaders and their teams need to consider all aspects of the system in which they live, which the report identifies as natural, social, built, human, and financial. When imagining disasters that could affect their organizations, leaders must consider how these disasters will also affect each of these five parts of the system they reside in. Ex. How will such an event affect people? How will it affect the built and natural environments?

3. Understand essential outcomes

To be resilient, organizations must focus first on the “essential outcomes” their customers expect them to deliver and then on the processes and assets required to deliver those outcomes. Focusing on the outcome ensures the customer still gets what they need, no matter what goes wrong. The report says that organizations often prioritize the process and assets over these essential outcomes, leading to dissatisfied customers when a disaster does occur, and that many of the leaders they interviewed found “the shift to an outcome perspective…challenging.” Bringing in team members who are closest to the customer is important for managers to define the organization’s essential outcomes—those services that must continue for the company to survive and keep its customers functioning.

4. Define impact thresholds

Here, organizations further define their essential outcomes in the context of their impact on the five aspects identified above. For example, services that are so crucial that, if they were disrupted, would have a significant negative impact on the customer, the natural environment, the economy, etc. Organizations also determine at what point the essential outcomes would be compromised, when to divert resources from one service to another, and so on. Doing this in advance of a disaster prevents organizations from having to make these sorts of decisions on the fly, yet keeping these thresholds flexible is important, in case priorities change once a disaster occurs, the report highlights.

5. Balance strategic choices

Leaders in resilient organizations are able to change strategies as challenges—such as those brought on by the current pandemic—arise while still maintaining the standards or controls necessary to keep employees safe and meet the needed level of quality. This means being able to balance “seemingly competing priorities,” the report states. It outlines four common ways to achieve organizational resilience and how successful organizations use some combination of all these strategies, rather than seeing them as “either/or” choices, to achieve resilience. Those four methods include 1) preventive control, a defensive strategy to return the organization to its normal state; 2) mindful action, which is a more flexible defensive strategy, 3) performance optimization, a progressive strategy that involves improving what the organization already has; and 4) adaptive innovation, a more flexible progressive strategy that involves the creation of something new to achieve resilience. When it comes to how the organization achieves resilience, conflict can be a good thing as it helps ensure that all priorities are addressed and one is not given more attention than another. In short, managers need to be able to balance controls and innovation to remain leaders in their field while still ensuring safety and quality.

6. Stress test thresholds

The report highlights the importance of scenario testing that is not based around specific events, such as an earthquake, but on the general interruption of critical services. Many of the organizations interviewed stated that focusing on specific scenarios is too limiting. Resilient organizations use these exercises to determine when key services would be interrupted; for example, once they are limited to operating at 20 percent capacity, once they no longer have access to their office building, etc. Learning from actual disruptions or near misses is also essential to preparing for disasters and the use of modeling to simulate impacts to essential outcomes is another important tool for identifying weaknesses in advance.

7. Enable adaptive leadership

Strong leadership is critical to achieving organizational resilience, the report says in the final aspect. Also shown by the lab leaders interviewed for this series, the report highlighted frequent communication throughout entire organizations, along with setting direction and gaining commitment from the whole team as key elements to strong leadership. In the organizations that managed the pandemic’s challenges most effectively, leadership came from many individuals within the team, not just those traditionally seen as leaders, states the report. 

“Rapidly changing circumstances require many people in organizations to undertake leadership practices, working collectively in the situation,” the authors write, adding the leaders they interviewed gave examples of their staff taking the initiative to change organizational practices and develop new resilience interventions as needed. 

The three main takeaways for lab managers from this report are, that to successfully navigate challenges brought on by any disaster, organizations must identify their key services in advance and how they would continue those services in the face of disaster, be able to adjust quickly to ensure those services continue no matter what problems arise, and be prepared for any sort of disaster well in advance.