A leader’s guide to building resilient, high performing organizationsTap into the infinite potential that lies beyond the benchmark
What is resilient performance? Why does it matter and how do you achieve it?
As it is in nature, it also can be in business: Resilience is among, if not the key indicator of, whether an organism or an organization will survive over time. Harvard Business Review (HBR) asserts that “resilience is especially important today because the business environment is becoming more dynamic and unpredictable.” HBR goes on to say that resilience is notoriously hard to achieve and to measure, as traditional key performance indicators don’t account for it.
For the context of this guide, resilience can be defined as the ability for an organization to return to a healthy state of performance after a circumstance has caused it to enter a crisis state.
But beyond survival, leaders want their organizations to thrive, and the connection between resilience and performance is undeniable. In fact, McKinsey & Company uses the term “emerging resilients” to define the companies that are in the best position to achieve the escape velocity that allows for breakthrough performance, even in times of increasing uncertainty. Maybe not surprisingly, achieving resilience and realizing the breakthrough performance that comes with it, begins with people. Forbes has highlighted training and practices that build resilience, many of which stem from the Psychology of high-performance athletics. And resilience – the ability to embrace change – is stated as a top skill of the workforce of the future by too many publications to list here.
So why so few organizations reach escape velocity? One reason is that there are many cultural and leadership mindsets, hiding deep within the many layers of organizations, that are enemies to achieving what I will refer to as “resilient performance.”
In this guide, we will highlight three of the most prevalent of these mindsets, and the so-called field that promotes their growth. We will also share three mindsets that invite resilient performance and describe the environment in which they are able to thrive. And finally, we will share outcomes that emerge as a result of resilient performance and how your organization can get started.
You can also have a discussion with the Fathom team to explore how these ideas can apply to your organization.
Don't have time to read the guide now?
Read the full guide below or fill out this form for a downloadable PDF version you can reference later.
Click to jump to any chapter OR scroll down to read in order
The enemies to resilient performance
A way to think about resilient performance is as a capability that can be developed over time. Not unlike strength or flexibility, resilience can be built through regular practices that exercise the often forgotten or atrophied organizational, cultural, and leadership muscles. However, just like any new routine, getting started can be hard, and sticking with it even harder. So, it is important to acknowledge the forces that might compete for your time and energy, distracting you from building or developing this muscle. Below are three organizational mindsets that are pervasive, often hidden, yet powerful in their ability to occupy all of your time and attention and cause organizations to be more fragile and vulnerable to change.
One: Focus only on creating things for others (Allopoietic Systems)
Businesses expend the vast majority of their energy creating things (products and services) for someone else (customers). And rightly so, as making things to sell to others drives revenue. However, when the focus on that effort becomes too myopic, there is little to no energy or capacity for creation or reinvention. When this happens, the organization itself can become needlessly vulnerable to disruption and change. In biology, this is referred to as Allopoiesis, a process whereby a system uses raw materials to produce something other than the system itself. For example, in car manufacturing, the production process is focused on the end product, the car, and does not sustain the car factory system itself. For an organization to achieve resilient performance, it needs to also have mastery of Autopoiesis, or processes capable of reproducing and maintaining the organization itself by creating its own culture, systems, and resources needed now and in a changing future.
Ask yourself: How often are you creating brand new things with and for your organization? When was the last time your customers said, excitedly, “wow, you’ve really changed things up!”?
Two: Being lulled into complacency by the allure of the comfortable
To put it in Newtonian physics terminology: An organization in a comfortable state, wants to remain in a comfortable state. And as much as it might feel like it, comfort does not mean safety. In fact, the more comfortable an organization is, the more vulnerable it is to elements of surprise, and surprise is the plat du jour these days. The comfort I’m talking about here is the comfort of knowing what you are doing, and what to expect. The degree someone is an expert in their field is the same degree in which they become irrelevant when a breakthrough obviates their field. In a recent essay I call it “The prison of knowledge.” Suffice to say, organizations with resilient performance are both comfortable leveraging what they know about their field of expertise, and comfortable working in the field beyond what they know (more about this later).
Ask yourself: When was the last time your organization felt new and exciting, and yes, uncomfortable?
Three: Seeing your organization for what it is and how it works, but not for what it means
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said it best in his seminal book The Great Partnership, science is all about taking things apart to see how they work, and religion is about putting them back together to see what they mean. He argues that the only way to understand the meaning of something is to be able to stand outside of that thing to see it in relationship to what’s around it. (This is how he brilliantly formulates his argument for the existence of God). To achieve resilient performance, it is vital for any organization to step outside of how it works and look at what it means to the world around it.
Ask yourself: Do you really know what your organization is to your community? Do you know to what degree your organization matters to your customers? Your employees?
Two playing fields
To illustrate the concept of fields and to introduce the choices we have to work and play, first we need to define what we mean by “field.” In this case, the concept of field was brilliantly illustrated in James Carse’s book, Finite and Infinite Games as a field of play in which we can engage in certain kinds of games. Simon Sinek recently built on Carse’s work in his book The Infinite Game, which talks about the benefits leaders gain by setting their organization on a path to ideas bigger than the organization itself (e.g., belief or purpose).
The two fields of play we will focus on will be called the “field within the benchmark” (on the left), and the “field beyond the benchmark” (on the right).
Field within the benchmark
The field within the benchmark favors the mindsets outlined earlier, and if this is the only field an organization is working in, it can dramatically limit potential and performance. Not only that, working only in this field over time can calcify, or render the organization itself to become rigid and unchangeable. And when this happens, the organization can become impossibly fragile, running the risk of artificially shortening its lifespan due to its inability to respond to change.
What are benchmarks?
To fully understand the field within the benchmark, first, we need to understand benchmarks. Benchmarks are the things often used to set the targets for an organization to aim toward. Benchmarks are almost always an accounting for something, like revenue and profit, and comparing it to something, like the past year, or the best year. Benchmarks also include things like staying compliant (e.g., FCC, HIPPA), or meeting an industry standard, or rating (e.g., ISO, CSAT). Benchmarks also include ratings such as being recognized as a “best place to work,” where participating organizations are ranked according to a known standard established in the past. As illustrated in this simple graphic, the field within the benchmark is the space between where your organization currently stands, and the benchmarks you have set your sights on.
Benchmarks get set almost always as a result of someone, somewhere setting it. Meaning that if we are aiming for a benchmark, we can be satisfied that a solution, or example for how to get there is probably known, if not by the organization itself, then by some expert somewhere. And we can be secure in the fact that we can employ proven, best-in-class methods and processes to attempt to achieve the benchmark. Continuous Improvement, Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, Hoshin Kanri and LEAN are all proven methodologies, processes and tools designed to work well in field within the benchmark. And those working in this field can be comforted by predictable results when applying such methodologies.
However, this field has limits. If there is a proven path to the benchmark, then all of your competitors have access to the same resources. If the solutions are known, then there is a finite set of possibilities for improvement. Organizations working within the benchmark field often find themselves in an increasingly competitive environment, even to the point of increased commoditization. There are also limits to the ROI of continuous improvement. Inevitably you will hit a barrier where any further improvement is so costly that the gain isn’t worth it, and the market is unwilling to pay for it. What’s even more significant is that working within benchmarks, even with all of its familiarity, does not handle disruption and change well at all. And this field, as illustrated above can encourage mindsets that can be enemies to resilient performance.
Organizations that aim toward benchmarks alone tend to end up some distance short of the benchmark. We can set “stretch” goals to try and compensate for this fact, but because we know this field so well, we also know how to game the system and ourselves into being “okay” when we don’t hit them. I am not suggesting that benchmarks aren’t achieved, if not smashed sometimes, but not nearly as often as we fail to reach them. Even when they are smashed, it is often a mystery as to what it was that allowed for it. As HBR notes, resilience is hard to measure, as the traditional within the benchmark KPI’s don’t account for it. As a result, organizations earnestly amplify the things they do know and can account for, in an attempt to cause another breakthrough. However, these attempts almost always result in either incremental improvement, or fundamental breakdown, and rarely if ever cause a breakthrough for the second time.
The friends of resilient performance
Now that we have covered the benchmark-oriented organizational muscles that are most commonly developed, let’s look at where we can start building strength and flexibility in new areas that will allow your organization to be successful in achieving resilient performance. What we have found at Fathom is that clients who have witnessed the incredible outcomes that resilient performance drives have worked hard on the development of, and continued practice with, the following three mindsets.
One: The courage to act in the unknown
Leaders have to make decisions with incomplete information nearly every day. But the courage to act, when there is no precedent, recipe, or proven path, is courage at a higher level. When an organization is up to creating the conditions that favor its future, working in the unknown is a regular occurrence. It also means relying on things other than proof or established knowledge. These things include audacious long-term visions, a sense of purpose that is greater than the organization itself, and a belief in an idea that might be provocative or even controversial. These kinds of ideas, when acted upon courageously, can become a hotbed of innovation, creativity, and lay the groundwork for transformational change and performance.
Ask yourself: When was the last time your organization made a really bold decision that bears significant influence on your future?
Two: Imagination to create what’s missing
The future is only limited by how far we allow our imaginations to stretch, without snapping back to the rational and provable. Organizations that enjoy resilient performance use their imaginations much more than traditional organizations by asking questions, experimenting with new ideas, dreaming of the future, and creating new things. When working in the unknown, it is essential that the organization is prepared and practiced with the ability to imagine what isn’t there but is needed, and to create and apply what’s needed to make progress toward their vision. You can’t fix your way to a new future; you can only create your way there.
Ask yourself: How often is your organization reinventing key offerings, launching a brand-new product or service, or some unique-to-your-organization way of doing things internally?
Three: Relationships that grow stronger through change
Achieving resilient performance is all about relationships, specifically the kind of relationships that are designed to get stronger through adversity and change. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s landmark book Antifragile goes beyond the concepts of resilience and robustness where he argues “some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” For many organizations, relationships within them fall apart pretty quickly when any of the influences that Nassim states are present. However, if the right conditions are created and maintained, relationships cannot only withstand such influences, they can thrive.
Ask yourself: How often do you have challenging, high-stakes conversations, and arguments, that are resolved with not only clear action but stronger bonds with those involved?
Beyond the Benchmark: The field that ignites resilient performance and transformation
There is another field, and it lies beyond the benchmark. You’ve been there before, perhaps many times, but you might not have known it. It’s the times where you stood looking at a situation, not knowing exactly what to do, and acted anyway. It’s the place where your ambition was big enough to overcome your fear of the unknown and undone and step into the new anyway. Fathom refers to this as the field beyond the benchmark. This field is distinct because it is the field of the unknown – if you know what you are doing, you are not beyond the benchmark, you are standing behind it. It is the field where everything is possible, and nothing is limited to what’s been seen or experienced. This is the field, that for those with the courage to work here, offers infinite potential for breakthrough and transformation. It’s where disruptive ideas are born and played out. It’s where industry leaders are forged in the furnaces of its creative energy. It’s where we can be bold, make bold moves, and create bold possibilities.
This field is the space between where our organizations stand and the beliefs we have about what is possible. It is a field that includes the benchmarks of the past but stretches way beyond them to include ideas about the world and what is possible beyond any understanding of how to accomplish it. It is a field only limited by our imaginations and willingness to challenge ourselves and others to aim higher. This beyond the benchmark field allowed for the moon landing, the internet, and vaccines. All of those feats seemed impossible at the time – in fact, the skeptics vastly outweighed the visionaries – but the vision won anyway. For businesses, it can take the form of a sense of purpose that not only goes beyond what you sell but also provokes your team to think and act beyond what is true and known today. Coordinating people, creativity, emotional intelligence, and critical thinking are consistently listed among the top “attributes” for businesspeople in the 21st century, and every one of them, and many more, thrive and blossom in the field beyond the benchmark.
The Power of Purpose
Unlike the field within the benchmark where knowledge and experience and management skill rule the land, the field beyond the benchmark calls for courage, creativity, and leadership.
Working in this field is uncomfortable. It requires us to go beyond what we know how to do, and to create what is needed for each step toward whatever purpose or belief is calling you forward. But there is something about it that stirs often latent parts of our minds, bodies, and souls. It is the field that the more we work in, the more we discover about ourselves, our potential, and our ability to create new things. And it’s where we realize incredible performance for ourselves and our organizations.
It is the field that, when we play here, it animates and ignites us like no other. French general Ferdinand Foch says it so perfectly, “the most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.” This field is also unique in that pursuing a meaningful belief or purpose, we are drawn toward something. And when we are drawn toward something, we are no longer so vulnerable to the world pushing us around.
The business case for purpose is undeniable, but having a sense of purpose and knowing how to translate that into breakthrough performance are two distinct things, where proper guidance and practice are key. And that’s just it, if you and your organization have a desire to move beyond what has been accomplished and known as possible, you can. The better equipped and practiced you are in working in the field beyond the benchmark, the bigger leaps of performance you can expect to take. For many of our clients, a radical transformation that results in equally radical organizational performance has been realized in as little as one calendar year.
Know what field you’re in: Use these attributes to distinguish the experience of each field.
We all have the ability to work and play in the field beyond the benchmark, even if that ability has been unexercised or forgotten. The other good news is that organizations like Fathom have created plenty of ways for organizations and their leaders to both get their feet wet or dive right into the deep end. The best news of all is that the only thing you need to get started is a willingness to step beyond what you know and to entertain the impossible.
In business as in nature, the more resilient a species or organization, the better its chance of thriving. The world we have built for ourselves isn’t designed to slow down, so disruption and surprise are only going to keep coming, at a faster rate and a larger scale. With this future that is in fact already here, becoming equipped and practiced in the art of recreating yourself in the face of change is the most essential capability your organization can invest in as it moves forward..
Interested in learning more?
Please reach out to see how Fathom can help accelerate the performance of your organization.