Dave's Ponderings on
Resilience as a Function of Dynamic External and Internal Eco-Systems
Organizations flourish through the ability to master change and the adoption of new ideas.
Figure 1. A symplified example of a complex adaptive organizational system.
We know that an organization doesn’t just materialize without having people or other organizations to serve as customers, members, clients, etc., or without a purpose (that informs vision and mission, and which might sometimes be forgotten). We know that supporting structures and providers don’t just pop-up out of the blue to exist in an inter-action free vacuum. And the same applies to associations, NGOs and other volunteer groups that might interact in the organization’s sector. The organization is part of an adaptive organizational eco-system with many and varied interactions
Resilient and flourishing organizations recognize that they are complex adaptive systems functioning within a larger complex adaptive eco-system. Figure 1 provides a simplified example. A complex adaptive system has a number of characteristics including: interacting or interdependent elements; non-linear interactions where minor changes to one element can create unforeseen and major consequences; a dynamism where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and solutions emerge rather than are imposed; the system has a history that is integrated with the present as evolution occurs; and it is close to impossible to predict with certainty what ultimate outcomes will occur when at initial stages. To manage effectively in such an environment requires conceding that one is managing interactions and not just inputs to a mechanistic, linear process.
These organizations emerge to address a community or market need (an external context driven, missing systemic piece or deficiency). When an organization faces an internal short-coming, it often is believed that the cause is either a lack of material resources, inadequate skills, or outdated/ineffective structure. While these are all important, we readily gravitate to them because they are relatively easy to observe and measure – they are visible and easily grasped. But according to observations from international capacity development practice and our own experience, there are elements that are much more foundational and “invisible”. In the late 1990’s I became aware of the work of Alan Kaplan from South Africa. His framework for organizational and community capacity development made great sense to me then and my experience has only reinforced the usefulness of it. I share it as a pyramid to drive home the foundational aspect of each element for the ones following.
Figure 2. The pyramid of capacity development.
Beginning at the very bottom of the pyramid and proceeding to the top (see Figure 2), the foundational requirement for any organization to be resilient in a complex environment, the footing on which capacity is constructed, is the development of a conceptual framework (a mental model) which reflects the organization’s understanding of its world and its place in it. This is a coherent frame of reference, a set of concepts which allows the organization to make sense of the world around it, to locate itself within that world, and to make decisions in relation to it. It becomes or emerges into a contextual self-awareness.
Being self-aware of context is accompanied with an organizational ‘attitude’ towards that context – a passion that drives purpose. An organization needs to build its confidence to act in and on the world in a way that it believes can be effective and have an impact. It has to believe in its own ability to affect its circumstances, allied to an acceptance of responsibility for the social and physical conditions ‘out there’. It must be able to LEARN.
Further, organizations must be able to have volition, to choose to exert influence and to move and develop with strategic intent. It is about the capability of a living system, to be conscious and aware of its place in the world, to configure itself, develop its own identity and then to act. And to do so over the resistance or non-cooperation of others and any contextual constraints. From this perspective, organizational capacity and resilience is about human, social and institutional energy.
With clarity of understanding and a sense of confidence comes the ability to develop an organizational vision and mission. Many organizations have written vision and mission statements; however, they are often developed from the perspective that we need one and somebody else’s is paraphrased with no contextual grounding. A meaningful vision and mission recognizes that there is an external reality which must be responded to, and there is an inner inspiration that must be harnessed and focused. To be effective, it must identify its own unique abilities and strengths in order to focus on the possibilities of its unique contribution. Interaction between understanding context, appreciation of responsibility and a passion to respond yields organizational vision.
Vision and mission produces an understanding of what the organization intends to do; strategy is a translation of the organization’s intentions into actions. Strategy is achieved through the constant interplay between doing, planning and evaluation. Given such evaluation, it has to re-imagine, re-plan, re-strategize; improve and adapt its methodology as well as its understanding of its context, its vision, and its relationships with others. It promotes the capacity to adapt and self-renew.
An important dimension of organizational attitude is culture. Culture is reflected through the norms and values which are practiced in an organization; the way of life; the way things are done. Without changing culture (and the behaviors reflecting it), other changes that may be needed are likely to be short-lived and ineffectual. Many of the cultural aspects of organizations exist and operate unconsciously: what people say they value and believe in and what is practiced in the organization are often very different.
Over time every organization will develop ways of doing things – habits, norms, routines, mindsets. They become unconscious. The organization loses awareness of them and they become hidden. The organization that honestly makes them conscious, which becomes aware of its own dynamics, and makes its values transparent and collective, can use that power as a source of liberation, creativity and energy.
A positive culture allows generative practices such as reflection and ‘double-loop’ learning, self-organizing, bridging and linking. Without this capacity, the essential core of the organization cannot be sustained over the long term. A negative culture, on the other hand, can lead an organization or system to become obsessed only with its own survival and vested interests, losing the capability to innovate and experiment – losing the ability to reinforce a spirit of performance and serving the common good.
Once organizational aims, strategy and culture are clearly understood it becomes possible to effectively structure organizations so that roles and functions are defined and differentiated, lines of communication and accountability untangled, and decision-making procedures are transparent and functional. ‘Form follows function’.
An observation: many attempts to intervene in improving organizational resilience take structure and tasks or procedures as their stating point, partly because this element is easily observable, partly because it can be more directly accessed and manipulated, and partly because it seems to be the cause of much malfunctioning. In most cases, attempts at change starting with structure will find success elusive.
At this stage, in terms of priority and sequence, comes the growth and extension of individual skills, abilities and competencies – the traditional terrain of training courses and continuing education. Unless organizational capacity has been developed sufficiently to capture training and the acquisition of new skills, training courses do not ‘take’, and skills do not adhere. The organization that does not know where it is going and why; which has a poorly developed sense of responsibility for itself; has limited capacity for learning; and which is inadequately structured, cannot make use of training and skills acquisition.
And finally, an organization needs material resources – financing primarily. However, how often have we seen the common misunderstanding displayed by incapacitated organizations – the thought that they would become capacitated if only they had access to sufficient resources (money, etc.,). Experience has shown that, by and large, those organizations that complain about their lack of resources, and which attribute their failures to this organizational element, are stuck in a deficit way of thinking and lack the ability to counter these problems, while those organizations that accept their own incapacities and attempt to remedy them, embracing an asset based view of thinking, gain the ability to overcome or compensate for external constraints through resource leveraging and innovation.
Ultimately, resilient organizations flourish in a complex environment through the ability to master change, including changed circumstances, and the adoption of new ideas. Value chains or networks of peers and interdependent organizations – dynamic relationships – take on critical importance.
Strengthening organizational resilience is a voyage of personal and collective discovery that evolves over time. Understanding how things came to be, what choices were made and how that influenced direction and action, helps the organization to move forward from a position of self-awareness. This approach stresses the emergence of inner human and organizational qualities such as resourcefulness, identity, confidence, innovation, collaboration, courage, imagination, aspiration, passion and deep meaning/purpose. And this voyage is never taken in isolation.
Until next time, I wish for you a resilient and flourishing life and organization!
Next month from Dave: Ubuntu (the African concept of personhood) and Resilience