Get ready to be bent out of shape – attitude trumps it all

Thursday 24 January 2013

By Jasmine Whitbread, CEO of Save the Children International

I’m preparing for my session on Enterprise Resilience and have found a definition of resilience that fits my thinking: “the ability of matter to spring back quickly into shape after being bent, stretched, or deformed”. I like this because it flags up that to be resilient you need to be prepared to be stretched or deformed in some way.

These days relatively too much attention is paid to trying to anticipate what the black swans are and trying to avoid them. Whereas resilience requires you to accept that stuff happens. The key is getting in shape to deal with it, whatever it is and whenever it comes.

At Save the Children this is core to our business, particularly to our emergency responses. People say emergencies by definition can’t be predicted, but if you take a step back, they can – at any one time we know we’ll be responding to 30-40 emergencies, spanning conflict to natural disasters, slow and fast on-set. We know autumn is hurricane season, spring tropical storms, summer is Asian floods, and we know where the most active earthquake fault lines are.  We know Kenyan elections are coming up in March, that Syria is going to be long-running, and that flare-ups in Eastern DRC and South Sudan are a live issue. The mega responses such as the Asian Tsunami or Haiti are harder to predict – but we can estimate in any 3 years, we’ll have a minimum of 1.

Our business model means we have to be ready to scale up (and down again) hiring, and later letting go, thousands of local staff and volunteers in dozens of tough locations around the world.  And because we are trying to get to the hardest to reach children, we have to manage serious security risks such as hostage taking and the threat of fraud and corruption in our supply and distribution chains.  Of course like any business we seek to minimize these risks with training, Standard Operating Procedures, rigorous audit etc, but that’s about risk management – Resilience is different:  accepting we will need the ability to stretch and bend but then spring back into shape.  Examples would be how we coped when our Country Director in Chad was tragically shot and killed, when we had a hostage taken (and thankfully later released) in Somalia, when we discovered fraud in some of our mission-critical partner organisations in South Asia, or when political forces threatened to get us kicked out of a country.

What are the elements of a resilient enterprise? Culture, systems and expertise and perhaps more surprisingly, structure.

While merging our international operations, we have maintained independent national members, working in a networked leadership model. Our nervous system resembles that of a starfish (distributed) vs a spider (central) meaning that if one leg is damaged the others continue, as expounded by Brafman & Beckstrom. Multiple CEOs and organisational hubs allow leadership for multiple crisies, emergencies and business as usual. 

You can think about enterprise resilience in the same way as team fitness – need to work out constantly to stay fit enough to withstand being bent out of shape.  In fact it can be the painful stretching and bending itself that make you agile and able to take a fall and stand back up.You need an experienced coach and expertise, but at the end of the day the right attitude trumps it all.

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