The dangers of declaring your business resilient

Telstra considers itself resilient. Late last week its CEO Andy Penn was quoted in Business Day (Telstra outages hits NBN and ADSL services across Australia) declaring that a review of its network found that Telstra has ‘incredible strength and resilience’. It should not be surprising that the word resilience is applied liberally in media releases and public comments by businesses everywhere. In fact not using the word may immediately raise concerns by those paying attention as to the real business acumen of a given enterprise The moment a feature of business becomes desirable it also becomes marketable. Such is the case with resilience. Businesses are fast off the mark to declare their resilience.

seinfeldIt would be foolish to assume one can determine how resilient a business is by looking only from the outside in. A lot can be gleaned by looking at a business from the customer’s perspective, competitor’s perspective, investor’s perspective, business analyst observer’s perspective and so on. The real conclusion though can only be drawn when every aspect is examined, including any internal factors, often hidden from public view. Telstra’s internal review may indeed have reached an agreeable position, and its leadership may have satisfied their own standard of resilience. That being said, the simple fact is this: there is no mandatory business resilience standard which can be used to judge Telstra’s self-branding of resilience against what may be acceptable to its customers. More importantly, a business can declare publicly that it is resilient all it likes, but that quickly raises more questions than if the business was more reserved in the way it manages its image.

I only refer to Telstra as a recent case of a business that is trying to manage its services in light of the ongoing frustration it manages to deliver to its customers. It is certainly not an inspiring business as we look to future challenges. What is interesting is that a company of such a scale has not yet realised that resilience in business is a whole different ball game today than it was two decades ago. It is not a small part of business strategy: it is a strategy in its own right. Among the well credentialed talent that makes up Telstra’s Leadership Team, there is a missing link; a Chief Resilience Officer. The structure of the team clearly reflects on a business model that has been around for a while; i.e. someone in charge of finance, someone in charge of sales, someone in charge of marketing, and so on. There is no specific leader dedicated solely to resilience. The assumption here would be that resilience is just a part of operational strategy. This is a major flaw in the thinking of most businesses today; not recognising that resilience is more than a passing issue, but rather a discipline of as equal value to competitive business as, say, finance and marketing.

It has been noted that business leaders do recognise that resilience is important and in fact the majority believe that resilience offers a competitive advantage. A very good reference point can be found in ORGANISATIONAL RESILIENCE: Building an enduring enterprise, a study published in The Economist not that long ago. Here is a direct quote from the report: “Some 88% of respondents say that resilience is a priority for their businesses, and 80% say that resilience is indispensable for long-term growth. Moreover, 61% say resilience is a source of competitive advantage. Yet only 29% say that resilience is “fully embedded in their organisations and a clear factor in success”, and only 44% expect resilience to be fully embedded in three years’ time. These results suggest that there is a gap between aspiration and performance.” The report is a reminder that there is a major gap between what has been said about business resilience and the actions necessary for businesses to be able to better deal with disruptions. As a customer who pays thousands to Telstra for its service, I expect it to be resilient. I expect it to know what resilience means. The only way I can judge is by the quality of service they provide.

Looking at the recent Another Telstra Event (what else can it be called) I reach for some comic relief by remembering Seinfeld. In one episode Jerry is frustrated with the customer service at a car rental. After learning that the car he reserved is not available and thus offered a different car he makes his point, which goes something like this; ‘You know how to take the reservation. You just don’t know how to hold the reservation. You see it is the holding of the reservation that makes it work.”

About the author

Jelenko Dragisic is the founder of the Global Resilience Collaborative (GRC) , a collaboration strategist and disaster resilience developer. As founder of ROADMENDER, Jelenko advocates a view that future enterprises will be critically dependent on their collaborative strategy. The formation of GRC was borne out of years of observation and analysis that clearly identifies that resilience in a systematic manner is not possible without a collaborative approach involving a broad range of disciplines.

Resilience….isn’t that just good old preparation?

It was not that long ago when a conversation about disaster resilience was only a code word for disaster preparation the old fashioned way. I can’t recall all the conversations I had about this subject but I do recall some really well. I still recall some conversations, when in the aftermath of the Queensland Floods and the Cyclone Yasi (just about the time when Australian government released the first National Disaster Resilience Strategy) when the resilience certainly was a big word, how some felt that resilience was really nothing new. The existing model of disaster preparedness was more than adequate, was the thinking despite the simple fact that it was not. For instance, we rarely saw any activity on the part of government/s during the winter period that talked about disasters. Mostly those things were done seasonally, just before the natural disasters were likely to happen. The resilience culture is not something that can be built seasonally. It is something that marks our behaviour all year round. On surface it seems as if no real benefit can be derived from talking about cyclones in July. But, I think that is where we go wrong. Not all preparation can be done only weeks ahead of a storm or cyclone. Brisbane North storms took place only two weeks into the season and it certainly caught many residents off guard. As someone once remarked; culture eats strategy for breakfast; so it is with resilience. It should be a culture and not merely a strategy.

The Gap storm 2008One of the most important lessons about the way resilience to disasters needs to be approached I gained when I was talking to different groups of people across Queensland when I was thinking about various projects that I wanted to include in the proposal to funding via National Disaster Resilience Program. Two points emerged then. One was what I considered clear lack of awareness in general public about the disaster resilience and what governments meant by that. It is not that hard to come across member of public today who would not be able to elaborate on the concept of disaster resilience. But a few years ago, especially before the Queensland Floods and Victorian Bushfires before that, that was almost the default state. So, on local level people essentially thought the disaster resilience is just another fancy government speak. To an extent that was that too, but in reality there was an emergence of a new thinking about the way we engage with natural disasters. The second part of the lesson was the way how communities assessed their own resilience. Essentially, there was no real consensus that was based on common understanding on what matters in relation to resilience. People were looking at different indicators of resilience in order to make a right call. That may not have been necessarily a bad thing because it also indicates that there are different things that matter to people. However, a good policy as an ingredient for resilient community and society at large can’t be developed without some degree of consensus. Which is precisely why a national strategy has to dovetail with local factor.

Those were only very small part of long list of insights that when compiled into a coherent narrative reveal some crucial principles of what resilience should be. I’ve come to think that the overarching narrative of resilience has to be expressed in subtle manner. Perhaps that is well summed in the words of Rolf Jensen formerly from Copenhagen Future Studies Institute when he states “A society without a positive attitude towards the future – one that does not believe that the challenges can be met and the problems can be solved – is not a healthy society.”

The aspect of resilience that remains unclear to many is the total benefit it delivers not only to community but also individual. I am reminded of point that Scottish philosopher David Hume made centuries ago when he asserted that government plays a unique role in mediating the shortsightedness that is so common among individuals pursuing self-interest and the long term interest of society as a whole. So far we have not explained to people what they have to gain by being resilient. Instead we preached to the converted. Resilience does deliver immediate and long term benefits and that has been observed globally in variety of situation. How much of that was a result of a direct strategy behind it is not completely known. But we can learn from that.

The above article is an excerpt from When We Stopped Eating Bananas, an e-book reflecting on disaster resilience since Tropical Cyclone Larry. It is available now on Amazon.