Building resilience in a fragile world

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By Lynda Gratton
We live in a fragile world. Every one of us faces profound and escalating challenges– youth unemployment touches many families; income inequality and poverty are a source of shame for many of us in developed countries; whilst it is only the least observant who could fail to recognise the early signs of a profound change in the climate. These challenges are no longer particular to one country or area: they affect most people around the world.

The challenges faced by organisations are no less complex. They too are faced with the implications of climate change, of inequality, and of the gap between their needs and the available pool of talent. These challenges are on a greater and more global scale than ever before, and emerging at an ever faster trajectory. Previously stable companies find themselves on shaky ground – and the negative consequences of the problems that surround them are proving difficult to reverse.

Over the last five years I have directed the Future of Work Research Consortium which brings together executives from more than 50 companies to consider how best to address these challenges. What is clear is that resilience is the key, and to build resilience companies will be called upon to develop a whole new set of tools and ways of innovating.

Building inner resilience

Resilience starts with what happens inside the corporation –with an, intellectually challenging, emotionally vibrant and socially connected community of employees. Those companies, like Tata Consultancy Services and Unilever who are attempting to do this, are using newly emerging technology to amplify the intellectual ideas and knowledge of employees across their businesses. They are ensuring that they gather the social wealth held in the different communities of people and in the networks that crisscross the company and stretch beyond its boundaries.

Executives also need to think hard about how to design jobs in a way that they enhance rather than denude the emotional vitality of their employees. For some, like BT, the wide-scale adoption of flexible working is allowing people to manage their own time in a positive and enhancing way. Others, like Deloitte are thinking hard about how to break the career hierarchies and introduce a matrix process that allows people to increase or decrease their contribution at different stages of their working life.

The importance of outer resilience

Creating a foundation of resilience is critical – and in some corporations there is also a focus on building resilience in supply chains and in the wider world they operate in. This is crucial because increasingly companies do not exist independently of the rest of the world, and their future is reliant on their interaction with the communities in which they are embedded.

I saw this at Danone where people across the company are actively working with farmers in their supply chain to ensure that they are building strong communities – the John Lewis Partnership is doing the same in the UK. These are corporations that are facing the challenges of our increasingly fragile world head-on, by recognising their connection with the outside world. They understand that their businesses are profoundly related to the communities in which they work and are able to think differently and comprehensively about the larger environment in which they operate. Some, like Royal Dutch Shell, are using scenario planning to help executives really become aware of the forces shaping their lives and their businesses. It is this awareness that will enable them to face these forces in a positive way, seeing them as opportunities rather than threats. The final piece of the puzzle is leadership: building resilience needs leaders who are prepared to balance long- term needs with short- term financial results.

What is clear to me is that being resilient requires making the choices that are positive for employees, investors and those in the communities they touch.

Lynda Gratton’s latest book, The Key: How Corporations Succeed by Solving the World’s Toughest Problems, is out on 9th June.

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