Defining Resilience

Authors of a recent book on this subject, Zolli and Healy, build their definition on a platform influenced by ecology and sociology, defining resilience as “the capacity of a system, enterprise, or a person to maintain its core purpose and integrity in the face of dramatically changed circumstances.”1 In a similar tone, ecosystem science authors Walker and Salt define resilience as “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and still retain its basic function and structure.”2

As my intentional awareness grew I found most often in social sector parlance that resilience was being touted as a destination. I read and hear resilience used as a metaphor for some kind of moat, shield, or inoculation from disruption. Fear of disruption may be the fundamentally more important issue but I’ll put that aside—for the moment—long enough to explore how individuals and organizations seem to position themselves for resilience.

Back to Zolli and Healy, who believe organizations, communities, economies, and whole ecosystems enhance their resilience in two ways: “by improving its ability to resist being pushed past these kinds of critical, sometimes permanently damaging thresholds, and by preserving and expanding the range of niches to which a system can healthily adapt if it is pushed past such thresholds”3 (emphasis added). This insight led me to wonder if organizations have the capacity and ability to pursue both paths concurrently. I recognize (more than I admire) the ability of leaders and organizations to multi-task, yet these two paths suggest to me culture bending mindset shifts. One shift is tough enough; two concurrently even harder. Worse, the skills they require be deeply embedded in the organization can unintentionally pull it in opposing directions.4 Worse yet, the shifts would be attempted in a separate and linear fashion, neither being influenced by the other.

The popular approach for pursuing the first path—improving ability to resist disturbance—seems most clearly expressed in the sector’s widespread adoption of process and performance improvement initiatives, variously labeled: continuous quality improvement (CQI), lean, adopting Six Sigma principles, finding True North objectives in a Hoshin kanri methodology, value based engineering, business and financial modeling, and more. These pursuits have great merit and can produce significant improvements, allowing social sector organizations to reduce wasted resources and deploy recaptured resources to benefit those being served.

Tough to argue this intent, right? Yet, the seemingly total focus required to lead an entire organization to adopt this performance mindset (with the requisite vocabulary and behavioral norms) may take place at the expense of pursuing the second path—building adaptive muscle—with sufficient resolve. Those organizations (perhaps entire sub-sectors) who so completely pursue the performance skill path to improve their ability to withstand disruption may be paradoxically contributing to their own system frailty and loss of resilience.


1 Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy, Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back (New York: Free Press, 2012) Kindle edition location 176-78.
2 Brian Walker and David Salt, Resilience Thinking: Sustaining Ecosystems and People in a Changing World (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2006), Kindle edition location 64-65.
Zolli and Healy, Resilience, 205-208.
4 Dean Robb, “Building Resilient Organizations,” OD Practitioner 13 (2000), 27-32. The author describes performance skills and adaptation skills, observing that “very few organizations have learned how to integrate these two poles of functioning.”

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