Seeking resilience? Try being more strategic

(This is the written version of a talk developed during 2020 between IsolaTed Talks, CIPR annual conference and the BMC podcast)

Last year, as I watched family, friends, clients, students, and myself adjust to the pandemic, I found myself thinking a lot about how people and organisations react to a crisis. The way they react shares a lot in common. Sometimes, our reactions shape us just as much as the crisis does.

Humans react to danger in instinctive and distinctive ways: fight, flight, freeze and fawn. Typically we show a predisposition to some over others. Evolutionary speaking, those mechanisms have positive roles too. To an extent, we can see them as ‘generic strategies’. To survive, our species needed this diversity. Taking the crisis heads on — fighters risk death. On the other hand, you can’t have a society of ‘flighters’ or they’ll run out of energy or options and die out too. Rigid templates weren’t enough even in prehistoric times. What remains is that when stress is high, people switch to ‘survival mode’ and default to their ‘type’, with the feelings that come with it — the fighters get angry, the flighters feel fear and anxiety, and so on. The go-to templates tend to become even more entrenched when a combination of high or persistent stress results in trauma. This type of rigid behavioural pattern is, in fact, an attribute of PTSD.

Organisations are like people in that sense. Once traumatised, even if the automatic response originally aided survival, it becomes ingrained. And then you get what I call ‘the post-traumatic organisation’.

Here are some symptoms I’m sure you’ll find familiar:

  • Everything is critical and urgent and behaviours reactive.
  • Management becomes control-focused and micromanages teams.
  • Throwing more work and resource at the problem indiscriminately and regardless of the impact to the team (While the fawn reaction is probably the least known in human psychology, it’s rife in professional service organisations, including agencies).
  • Playing it safe and ‘sticking to our knitting’ even if it means spending resources on things that no longer work.
  • Resisting change with processes slowing down or grinding to a halt.
  • Conversely, rapid switching from one line of action to another in wasteful or ineffective ways.
  • General short-termism often coupled with an obsession with short-term rather than long-term KPIs.

More measured amounts of some of the above ‘organisational stress responses’ can be valuable for survival. Still, if things get stuck at that level, post-traumatic organisations typically become uncreative, rigid, reactive, and brittle. That’s a toxic environment for people and business.

Traditional risk/crisis management won’t get you out of survival mode. It’s quite linear — typically these approaches map potential danger sources, assess risk, develop plans, train and put people in charge of the plans. It works better in case of a fire, a security breach or organisational misdeeds, for example. If you look at Lerbinger’s classic 8 types of crisis, you’ll they don’t really cover a ‘smouldering crisis’ such as covid in full.

Suppose we shift to the more modern ‘turnaround’ approach (shout out to the Institute for Turnaround). In that case, things start the same but then focus on continuity — liquidity, supply chain resilience, stakeholder confidence, protecting your KPIs etc. That’s a step in the right direction.

But again — that might not be enough to break out of survival mode. And in the case of covid, we now know it’s not enough to recover from the trauma to the business, supply chain, and adapt to demand-side changes.

Now you need to adapt your operational model, including senior management, marketing, and potentially your business model. You need to think about your long-term position and start to put a strategy in place.

And there we have it — ‘the S-word’. As long as you’re not strategic, you’re in survival mode, and that can bring back some stability but might undermine your ability to thrive long term — just like it does for people.

The solution is to create a space for strategy and build it into the culture. First, there’s always time for strategy. The OODA Loop model is shaped like the classic strategic thinking paradigm and is used by dogfighting pilots. If they have time for strategy, you have time for it too. Yet, somehow ‘urgency’ is often used as an excuse to put strategic thinking as a whole on hold if not throw it out the window.

The second step is to develop it. Being strategic is not just down to a knack, a talent, or a skillset. It’s also a habit and a mindset. Being strategic helps you break out of mere survival mode. It’s not just a tool to build resilience, it is resilience. Because while strategists get a reputation for being naysayers and pessimists, you actually can’t be a strategist without being optimistic — you have to think about solutions and the future (Remembering strategy is not just about the long term, and that long-term is relative). It’s a positive mindset, where you are mindful of your emotions but can still process them. The strategic mind sees setbacks as a form of useful feedback. Those are all signs of psychological resilience and wellbeing.

And you can start by giving people some tools and then letting everyone participate. Humans are naturally strategic, and that instinct can be cultivated. By creating a shared thinking framework, people can get a sense of unity together with a newfound resilience. And isn’t that what we all need?

Strategist. Director of a boutique agency. Teaches the D&AD’s strategy masterclass and the SCA’s course in strategy. Writing between marketing and culture.

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