A version of this article first appeared on the Resilience Think Tank blog.

If you were to gather 50 risk and resilience professionals together in a room and ask each of them what their definition of “resilience” would be, it is my firm belief you would receive 50 different responses. Whether we choose the definition from the Oxford English dictionary (“the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties”) or the definition provided by the Financial Conduct Authority (“to prevent, adapt, respond to, recover, and learn from operational disruptions”), the word resilience means a lot of different things to each of us.

For me, the road to organizational resilience is a journey and not a destination – a state of utopian resiliency is not something which can ever be achieved. It must be an objective which is embedded into all elements of organizational strategy; understanding the goalposts will continuously move as the organization seeks to learn and evolve along the way.

Organizational resilience can only be achieved where a business chooses to build resilience into all of its functions, decisions, and strategies. It’s rare we hear the question “will this strategy make us more resilient” when discussing a new business offering, for example, or when choosing a new supplier who reduces costs. Increased resilience is often a secondary benefit. However, many organizations won’t realize the benefit until an individual working within the resilience function highlights this for them.

Even within the resilience industry, there’s still a topic of debate with regard to resilience. For instance, is this the same as business continuity? (This doesn’t help us to provide clarity to our stakeholders who perhaps have little to no knowledge of resilience, or business continuity for that matter.) Whenever I’m asked what I believe resilience is, my answer is it’s that guardrail which sits around everything in the organization. To put it bluntly, if an organization consistently makes decisions which reduce their resiliency, the organization may not be successful. Not dissimilar to evolutionary biology, the species which adapt to their changing environment and evolve are the species which thrive, and for me the same rhetoric applies to business resilience. My definition of a resilient business is one which prepares for disruption and thrives through unanticipated change. Yes, incident management and business continuity are really key components. However, resilience is one layer above and nestles itself into all corners of an organization.

I’m mindful we also mustn’t overlook our own resilience when considering a definition of the word’s meaning. To be the individual who is called upon in moments of crisis to lead an organization’s response takes level-headedness, assertiveness, patience, and a huge dollop of kindness to both others and ourselves.

It’s sometimes forgotten when a crisis happens, this impacts those leading the crisis teams too. During COVID, the crisis leaders were also there leading their teams through 18-hour days, on-call rotas and critical decisions. We cannot overlook the personal toll it takes on them. I believe it requires a level of conscientiousness to work in our field, and often the last individual we seek to support during crises is ourselves.

When it comes to personal resilience, my definition changes slightly. In addition to thriving through change, personal resilience is also about recognizing when you need five minutes headspace to recenter before heading back to the crises and leadership the organization is relying on you to provide. COVID was instrumental for me finding ways to quickly reset, whether that was taking the time to make a cup of coffee or simply just standing in the garden for five minutes before jumping back on calls. I’d encourage all resilience practitioners to explore their own methods of grounding themselves. For me, this is as critical a skill to master as setting an impact tolerance or guiding someone through a scenario exercise.

To summarize, resilience can mean a variety of things, and I’d suggest each of us consider our own definition as part of our elevator pitches. Unless we have our own clarity and we’re able to guide stakeholders through a definition, we can never expect the concept to be embedded. It’s my firm belief, unless something is defined and measured, it isn’t achieved. For anyone struggling to consider their own definition of resilience, my advice is to think bigger and broader than typical business continuity. Resilience isn’t the ability to simply survive, but it’s the ability to thrive.


Sarah Garrington

Sarah Garrington, MBCI, is a resilience professional and industry speaker with experience implementing resilience strategies in both legal and financial services organizations. She is passionate about supporting the next generation of industry professionals and has spoken on podcasts and events such as BCI's World conference.

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