Here at Roffey Park Institute we think about resilience a lot. Long before the pandemic struck it was a core research interest from which we derived resilience diagnostics, white papers, masterclasses and learning programmes. With the onset of Covid-19 and the transformation of all our working lives, resilience has become a core interest for many other organisations. Many people are asking how we can prepare ourselves to deal with the next pandemic? There will surely be one.
As this debate has developed, so the locus of resilience has changed. It used most commonly to be thought of in individual terms – as ‘personal’ resilience. But as we rarely do anything alone, and since most of us work in organisations, the focus has shifted to understand resilience as necessarily interpersonal – we can only be resilient together – and organisational – it’s about more than people. We need to be able to work together to withstand the shocks that life throws our way, and we need to do that in organisational structures that flex and adapt.
The more complex and multi-scalar account of resilience that emerges from this shift in thinking has significant implications. It requires us to rethink the ways we conceive of organisations. No longer impersonal aggregations of processes and systems into which teams of people are inserted, we now need to see organisations as complex ecologies. We are beginning to see organisations as highly diverse, as interpenetrating each other in dynamic and fluid ways. Organisations are not just places of work and production: they are emergent arenas in which overlapping social networks of people, communication, media, leadership and participation interact to generate a range of outputs. Only some of these will be recognised as their formal ‘business’: we produce communities, identities and stories as much as we do goods and services. As we develop this broader and deeper understanding of the concept, we think we’re gaining traction on what resilience might mean in practice.
And then a gust of wind comes along and throws everything into question.
The gust I’m referring to is the one that caught the bows of the container ship Ever Given. It must have been a powerful blast as it was enough to push hundreds of thousands of tons of steel just far enough off course to end up wedged firmly across the Suez Canal. At the time of writing frantic efforts to re-float the vessel have succeeded: the crisis has passed. But while one of the world’s busiest trade routes was blocked, thousands of ships were either riding at anchor or were forced to divert to other routes, particularly the long and risky passage round the Cape of Good Hope. Even after only a couple of days, the consequences of the Ever Given’s plight became evident. The Suez Canal carries around 10-12% of world maritime trade. Estimates vary, but each day the Ever Given remained grounded delayed around $9 billion worth of goods from reaching markets. The thousands of additional miles ships had to steam to reach their destinations consumed vast amounts of fuel. Almost as soon as the ship hit the canal wall, crude oil prices started rising, putting additional pressure on shipping companies and, ultimately, consumers. But the costs are not only financial. Burning all that extra fuel will affect both human and natural environments for years to come. The delay to the delivery of Ever Given’s 20,000 containers alone will have consequences for their owners and recipients. And that’s before we consider the knock-on effects for millions of others as supply-chains lengthened and distorted.
The Ever Given has now been re-floated and passage along the Suez Canal will resume. But what we saw unfold over a few short days was an incident, almost ridiculously small in the grand scheme of things, that sent a chill wind through the global economy. The simple act of physical disconnection that the Ever Given accidentally caused, reveals just how very fragile some of our worldwide structures remain. The stricken ship has given us a stark reminder that not everything can be switched online. Indeed, the technical means to put things online in the first place are piled in boxes aboard this now scattered merchant fleet.
What does this tell us about resilience?
In some ways nothing we don’t already know. Our personal, collective and organisational fates are highly interdependent: we knew that already. But it does reveal how vulnerable those fates are to events that take place unexpectedly and far away. Just as the pandemic has highlighted the problems associated with widespread human mobility, so the Ever Given shows us how dependent we remain on the mobility of things. In terms of the resilience of our organisations, we don’t yet fully know what effects will have been blown around the world by that gust of wind. Our interconnectedness is a source of resilience – it is essential to enable our complex organisational eco-system to absorb and adapt to shock. But it is also threat if we lose sight of just how far-reaching can be the consequences of a single gust of wind.