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We talk about resilience, or Resilience Engineering, especially in our series of articles S&T Happens: Surviving and Thriving in a VUCA World.

Let’s describe our understanding of resilience.

Teal Unicorns at work

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1 rebound “… rebounds from disrupting or traumatic events and returns to previous or normal activities”

2 robustness “… is able to manage increasing complexity, stressors, and challenge”

3 graceful extensibility “… extends performance, or brings extra adaptive capacity to bear, when surprise events challenge its boundaries”

4 sustained adaptability … is able “to adapt to future surprises as conditions continue to evolve”

D.D. Woods, Four concepts for resilience and the implications for the future of resilience engineering, Safety Science.


Resilience is the ability to come back from setbacks and grow from the experience, in other words organisational antifragility.


Resilience engineering is building work systems to be resilient: ensuring that our people and stuff cope, recover, and grow stronger when things go wrong.  


Business Resilience is less commonly described. It refers to

  • the resilience of our systems to survive stress, to heal, to recover, and to grow stronger as a result (antifragile) by learning with intention. Get organised: be ready for anything that happens now be prepared. Assume it will go wrong. Expect human error. Expect Black Swans. Expect catastrophe. Make systems fail safe, self healing, evolutionary, anything to better survive failures. Stop:
    • building fragile systems that only work when everything goes right.
    • Especially “Tarzan” systems that let go out into space on the assumption that the next swing is there.
    • optimising all the buffers out in the name of JIT efficiency.
    • Optimising all the capacity out in the name of utilisation.
    • Dragging legacy debt along in the name of ROI or sunk cost.
    • Expecting humans to get it right every time.
  • the resilience of our people to cope with adversity, to have: reserves of capacity and energy to deal with the unplanned; positive attitudes and morale; optimism; a sense of strength and capability.
  • the resilience of our culture which embraces adversity as growth, challenge as opportunity, failure as normal learning, and destruction as a refresh.


Volatility, uncertainty, complicatedness, and ambiguity are the new normal. In a VUCA world, how can we be more resilient to their impact? [1]

That way, VUCA can be a positive stimulus to the organisation not a negative force.

Here are some tactics [2]:

  • Manage volatility. Build in slack and devote resources to preparedness. Put another way, don’t lean out your systems too much, and make sure you value response capabilities that are sometimes idle.
  • Navigate uncertainty. Invest in information; collect, interpret and share it. Encourage diversity, empowerment, and collaboration in understanding information.
  • Reduce complicatedness. Simplify. Abstract and virtualise. Decouple: remove dependencies, create autonomy, break systems down into simpler smaller parts. Pay down systems debt.
  • Clarify ambiguity. Experiment, explore, and learn. Build sense-making capability to understand situations. Grow collaboration to widen the context as much as possible. 
  • Build business intelligence capability (sensors to detect data changes, streams of curated information from outside,  networks of contacts to detect disturbances, tracking trends and incoming possibilities) to foresee or quickly detect as much as possible.
  • Create an organisation founded on commitment to continuous learning and improvement. This must be at the heart of all work. In other words, agility.
  • Build critical-thinking skills. Be able to detect and compensate for biases, to challenge and dismantle assumptions and principles, and to debate respectfully and productively.
  • Grow a culture of positivity and confidence. Resilience breeds resilience.  Every time we bounce back, we build our preparedness for next time.
  • Build systems that cope, recover, and improve. This is what many people think of as RE, but as you can see it is only one part of the story. Disciplines such as Disaster Recovery, Business Continuity, Major Incident Response, and Systems Reliability cover it well.


If we aren’t resilient, it should be clear that we will build systems debt when things don’t get fixed properly, when we incur damage, don’t recover well; and we will build cultural debt, when morale takes a hammering, and people get stressed, pessimistic, exhausted, and burnt out.



[2] The first four points (manage, navigate, reduce, clarify) are derived from Bennett, Nathan; Lemoine, G. James. “What VUCA Really Means to You.” Harvard Business Review. January-February 2014.