There’s nothing quite like a crisis to make you thankful for your regular routine. During the best of times, our routines and plans are a big part of what makes us successful, but they’re even more important in times of crisis. If a worldwide pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need to be prepared for the unexpected. 

There are everyday occurrences that we can plan for, such as budget discrepancies or an employee going on leave, but then there are novel risks that no one can predict. These are known as black swan events, a term based on a 2007 novel of the same name which explores how we deal with highly improbable events. 

Although it can be tough to plan for every possible eventuality, a big part of resilience is being in tune with what’s going on around you, both on the small scale (think personal, departmental or office-wide) scale and the large global scale. 

The challenge lies partly in how interconnected business is. While a small incident might be manageable on its own, there is the tendency for it, and other events like it, to snowball and create a domino effect. That’s why being prepared is so important: because the right response can stop “impending doom” in its tracks. 

Planning for risk is a big part of creating resilience for your company. It’s essential to take this time to begin planning for crises, before the next crisis comes. 

COVID-19 as an example

COVID-19 remains the prevalent crisis of this year, with its effects likely cascading into 2021 and further. It isn’t just a health crisis either, it’s an economic crisis, a personal crisis, a job crisisand we have seen the many ways it has forced people and organizations to pivot. 

The companies that are coming out ahead during this crisis are the ones that responded quickly, transitioned smoothly to remote work, cut down on costs, and kept employees well informed. We have also seen how vital it is for resilience that companies are prepared to shift their focus and be adaptable. 

Related Reading: We’re in this Together. A Message from our President.

According to a 2020 study on agility in the workplace, 79% of companies describe employee health and safety as their primary concern, with 71% stating they believe that empathizing with both customer and employee fears is essential to their success as a business. While on the surface this seems like a given that companies should and do care about the health concerns and fears of their employees and customers, the data does show a shift to employee-centric strategies. 

From the mundane to the massive

How we plan for and deal with minor issues in the regular flow of work speaks to how we can handle larger problems. Do you handle issues as they come or do you have standard procedures in place? 

How you handle something simple will play a role in your company’s overall risk strategies and resilience.

The best course of action in planning for these types of issues is to use a combination of strategies, some that you have thought-out in advance and some that you improvise with your read of the situation. Responding to both mundane and massive issues requires structures in place that support you as a leader and the company and employees as a whole. It also requires that you’re able to respond in the moment, without the safety net of knowing that your solution has worked previously. 

Even for organizations that have mapped out risks for a variety of different circumstances and outcomes, it’s generally impractical to plan for every possible scenario. This is partly because it is impossible to predict, but also because it just isn’t feasible as far as time spent and general ROI. These types of risks can also arise so quickly that they sweep away even the best laid plans. They’re known as tsunami risks, risks that have lasting impact, named after the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan where in March 2011 a 9.0 magnitude earthquake hit off the coast of Japan, in turn causing a tsunami. 

Question assumptions

You’ve likely heard the expression “when you hear hooves, think horse, not zebra”. It’s often used in the medical community to remind healthcare professionals that the most likely diagnosis is something common (a horse), rather than something uncommon (a zebra). 

While this is a good general guideline in both medicine and business, this kind of thinking can also lead to the wrong decisions. That’s why it’s important to take the time to consider: what if it is zebras? What if this is the time that something is about to go wrong in our business/community/world and we need to hunker down and prepare for worst-case scenarios?

It’s not about catastrophizing every single event that takes place day-to-day. Rather, it’s about empowering leaders to ask questions and trust their instincts when something “feels off” and also to look beyond what they think and know. This is especially important for companies that don’t have an appointed risk assessment executive. 

Be adaptable and open to failure 

It’s vital that as leaders, we are adaptable and prepared to make decisions under pressure, while also recognizing that not every decision we make will be the right one. You can only make decisions with the information you have at the time, which means that in times of crisis you need to be open to the possibility that your first approach won’t necessarily be the best approach. 

It’s crucial that leaders within an organization be a combination of big picture thinkers, who are able to take a step back and gather as much information as possible before making decisions, and procedural thinkers, who can make decisions based on the way things have been done previously. Having a solid team of executives with a wide range of skills ready to jump into crisis management roles will help make decision-making, communication and crisis response easier.

The upheaval from COVID-19 has taught me and our company many things, but the biggest is to stop thinking about things in hindsight. Nothing could have been done to prepare for the pandemic. It is still continuing to evolve and taking it week by week or month by month is not a plan. That kind of thinking isn’t useful. Instead, let’s focus on looking forward with the knowledge we’ve gained. 

Resilience in business is all about understanding that there’s no such thing as one-size-fits-all. What works for one person or company will not necessarily work for another, and what works in one crisis may not work in another, which is where the importance of adaptability comes in.

Resilience is defined as not just how we can bounce back from unexpected crises, but also how we grow from them. So, as we take time to reflect on everything we have learned in 2020, we should also examine how we are going to move forward and put in place plans and protocols that will help us become more resilient and adaptable to future risks and the unexpected.


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