Operational resiliency; for some these words conjure up visions of endurance in the face of adversity, for others it is simply aspirational jargon that expresses what we would like our organizations to do.  Some, perhaps more administrative organizations, may believe that the use of the word “operational” renders the term non-applicable to their particular functional area. In truth, no matter what type of organization, public or private we should strive to be as prepared and as responsive as possible for any business impact, reputational crisis, catastrophe, man-made or natural disaster, in effect any stress event. 

Renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow (1962) discussed stress and its impact on individuals and groups stating “Stress will break people altogether if they are in the beginning too weak to stand distress, or else, if they are already strong enough to take the stress in the first place, that same stress, if they come through it, will strengthen them, temper them, and make them stronger.” The Nietzschens among us will recall the famous quote that “what does not kill (us) makes us stronger”. Nietzsche (1888). Independent of the organization’s mission or purview, there are times when crises, failures, shortfalls, or stress will occur. The question is how is that stress taken and can the organization work through the stress, bounce back and complete the mission. So then, we likely all agree and recognize that stress can and will affect us all and affect our organizations, it is all in how we tolerate and work around or with that stress that defines our resiliency or as some call it “hardiness”. 

From my earliest days as a young soldier and later as a Marine I was imbued with a strong sense of readiness and resiliency. One anecdotal observation of my own, that I am certain may be shared by others, is that much of our stress tolerance and hardiness has to do with adaptability. To foresee change, improvise, adapt and overcome it when it hits you. There is a quote often misattributed to Charles Darwin that states “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” Although the real author is unknown it may as well have been Mr. Darwin and is applicable to any leader in any organization. 

In the military, being adaptable and stalwart in the face of pain and adversity was the norm, and as a Special Operations Officer, hardiness and resilience is a requirement in our units and changing circumstances, resources and mission sets is inevitable.  Preparation through stress testing always came in the form of hardcore training and simulations designed to replicate the most grueling and extreme conditions. Cold, heat, isolation, equipment outages, simulated casualties and long movements on foot and without support. Now it would make no sense to apply such military doctrine or those extreme levels of readiness to a business environment. However, when considering strength and consistency in the face of adversity much can be learned from the writings of our earliest military leaders and one that stands out, despite being a bit folksy and with dated terms was written by Major Robert Rogers in 1789. 

Rogers was a colonial frontiersman in what was then New England, who volunteered to serve in the Colonial Army during both the ‘French and Indian Wars’ and the American Revolution applying unique indigenous tactics as he led, prepared and trained a 600 man infantry force. His common sense methods emphasized adaptability, readiness, self-sufficiency and stealth. Rogers’ 19 “Rules” were written in 1756, later reconstituted to 28 and have been a hallmark of the US Army Rangers and Special Operations Forces and continue to be taught today. When digested and considered in the context of operational resiliency the first nine explained here are as apropos now as they were over 200 years ago and can certainly be applied to the business environment. 

1. “Don’t forget nothing.” Plans and protocols are meaningless if they are too complex and cannot be readily understood or recalled. Most organizations have manuals and Standard Operating Procedures commonly known as “SOPs”, but we should strive to make plans, especially those involving crisis response readily accessible, understandable and executable at every level. Policies and procedures requiring immediate action or urgent attention should be boiled down into bite size, step-by-step bits. Condensed, ready reference guides or handbooks are a must and should be issued, trained and tested on to ensure operational resilience.

2. “Have your musket clean as a whistle, hatchet scoured, sixty rounds powder and ball, and be ready to march at a minute’s warning.” In military parlance since adopted and made famous by Tony Robbins it is said that “losers react and winners anticipate”. Action always beats reaction. Whether it is a proactive measure to effect a stock purchase at the best price, a first bid at a potential acquisition or a well prepared unanticipated game changer of a business initiative, we must do what we can to be ready at all times. Systems outages, criminal acts, terrorist attacks, hacks or earthquakes rarely if ever happen during a sunny business day when everyone is in the office. Leaders must prepare for crises to pop up at the worst times; the weekend, late night or holiday, when bosses are away and the most inexperienced or less equipped junior people are called upon to act. Operate by the “one is none, two is one” principle to ensure that you have those resources you will need in a crisis. Plan, inspect and rehearse in conditions that will replicate worst-case scenarios. Operational resiliency should include autonomous, independent testing to have an unbiased assessment of your capabilities and shortcomings. Seeking and adhering to standards such as ISO or industry recognized organizations best in class protocols will also help up your game. Having your equipment and people in order will ensure that you can readily adapt and pivot to the threat or situation at hand.

3. “When you’re on the march, act the way you would if you was sneaking up on a deer. See the enemy first.” In terms of resiliency, leaders must be forward leaning. Be stealthy and vigilant. Having a vision of what can go wrong, what threats exist in your field or in your area and knowing how you will react is incredibly important. You must be up on intelligence and recognize potential hazards well in advance in order to prepare for or prevent them. In the security arena, these are, perhaps, more obvious, but when considering facilities operations, banking or food service, have you looked at what may be impacting your area? What are the potential points of liability, loss or concern? Whether it is an insider threat of intellectual property loss, cargo theft, bad publicity, or product liability, what are you seeing in the industry you serve? Open your aperture and look beyond your focus area, your city, your country and your region. Today’s threats are hardly ever localized or isolated and you need to stay sharp and in tune looking over the horizon to “see the enemy first”.

4. “Tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is an army depending on us for correct information. You can lie all you please when you tell other folks about the Rangers, but don’t never lie to a Ranger or officer.” Emphasize integrity and trust; value those who speak truth to power. Lean on those who are in the know and who have the real view of what is happening. You must rely on the ground truth and really understand what is going on at the lowest levels if you want to make effective decisions at the strategic level. Value the inputs of your closest confidants and colleagues but encourage inputs from the newest people in your organization and embrace honesty. We all look to succeed and often try to send the good news stories up the chain of command, but the bad news, the reality checks are equally important. It is fine to brag about your excellent attributes and accomplishments, but resilience requires your organization to be brutally honest with each other and report any shortcomings or issues so that they can be corrected. Interoperability and integration should be the standard you seek. It requires a certain degree of trust and collaboration between higher authority and subordinate elements and, of course, cooperation and integrity between peer organizations and units to your left and right. 

5. “Don’t never take a chance you don’t have to.” At times it may be easier or more expeditious to cut corners or seek shortcuts. Jumping over checklist items or ignoring procedures is an invitation to failure or even worse, catastrophic consequences. Although patience, prudence and care may take you down a longer road, you will be more likely get to your destination in one piece. There is a caveat, and that is that many leaders avoid risk altogether. At times, resilience means being tough and staid enough to make a decision, and get rolling, making course corrections along the way. The United States Marine Corps emphasizes agility through a six-step decision making process that consists of problem framing, course of action (COA) development, COA war gaming, COA comparison and decision, orders development, and transition. When the time does not allow for that level of planning, an even more dynamic rapid planning process is undertaken that allows for quick deployment and utilization using existing procedures as the guiding framework for all actions.  Strong policies and procedures with quantifiable testing measures and metrics will ensure that even when time constrained or resource poor, there is always the ability to effect a rapid cycle of scan, assess, respond or react and analyze. Taking chances or cutting corners should not be the norm but agility should not suffer.

6. “When we’re on the march we march single file, far enough apart so one shot can’t go through two men.” It is a bit tougher to translate this point into a business relatable concept, but it could be said that Rogers never wanted to compromise the safety and security of his men by putting them so close together. Compromising all of your assets in one location at one time would be foolish in any endeavor. In the context of resiliency, you should never rely on one resource or asset or pool everything into the same place. 

If your organization is relying on a single site or entity to provide your information or attend to your emergency you may be out of luck if that location becomes part of the crises. From a sales perspective, if you are hedging your business survival on a sole client you are putting yourself at risk of losing everything at once. Your fate is in the hands of one client and at some point they may go down taking you along. In terms of personnel, effective cross-pollination, cross-training and professional development in order to ensure ascension or emergency role changes is essential. Spread load assets, tasks, and resources so that the metaphorical single shot doesn’t take you down all at once.

7. “If we strike swamps, or soft ground, we spread out abreast, so it’s hard to track us.” We can easily become mired down in minutiae or task saturated during crises. Resilience and hardiness requires that leaders trust their people and resist the urge to micromanage. Your name may be on the blame line but spread loading and disseminating tasks will allow for faster actions and better brief backs on results. To this end the military can certainly teach the private sector to allow for more agile decision making at the lower ranks. In the Marine Corps we often refer to the “Strategic Corporal”. These young men and women often still in their teens are at the lower rungs of the junior enlisted ranks but are afforded a great deal of responsibility and autonomy to operate. They are consistently trained and tested to ensure proficiency, knowledge and adherence to policy and are expected to make split second decisions in order to ensure the mission succeeds without need for constant permissions or authorizations. Much the same can be applied to the corporate world. Allow for junior personnel to take on responsibilities and afford them with opportunities to promote their initiatives. This ensures that in crises even if you hit a “swamp” you will have that much more agility and momentum.

8. “When we march, we keep moving till dark, so as to give the enemy the least possible chance at us.” Again, the colloquial way Rogers expresses this order can be translated to staying in motion and being proactive. Now this does not mean you burn your people or resources out by overextending them beyond their capabilities but reliance requires that we apply endurance and drive through sometimes beyond the end of a business day or time clock. Resilience means being hardy enough to stay in the game, follow through and identify; did we do everything we needed to do? Is there anything we missed? What if the situation re-emerges? Are we safe? For how long? Immediate debriefing and after action reviews are essential. If you “keep moving till dark” you will recognize if the situation is stable or not and whether there is more to be done.  

9. “When we camp, half the party stays awake while the other half sleeps.” At times we must be hardy and prepared to suffer, though that suffering needs to be moderated so as not to burn out everyone or everything at once. Vigilance and readiness requires someone to stay awake to watch for threats. In terms of operational resilience, having a follow the sun model with 24x7x365 coverage, interoperable communications and a common operating picture affords operations centers or hubs to provide real-time insight and information to leaders during crises. Interestingly enough, some organizations embrace easy does it, laissez faire attitudes or cultures that do not account for hardiness. Research has shown that hardiness in itself is a definitive moderator of combat exposure stress. Hardy people make for a hardy unit and shared resilience. In any organization behavioral health issues that affect the emotional stability of one individual will undoubtedly affect the stability and efficacy of others. That health starts at the top. Leaders lead by example and those leaders who demonstrate agility and adaptability will always be the most successful in a crisis. Ensuring your organization’s fitness and wellness are integral to how adaptable and resilient you can be. You may have the best minds, the top equipment and the outstanding equipment but if your people are burned out or overwhelmed you are not likely to succeed. 

Conclusion As mentioned, planning and stress inoculation are important parts of resilience, but effective forward thinking leadership is key. Of course, as the saying goes, hindsight is always 20/20, but leaders must play out scenarios, best case and worse case and game out what may happen and how to respond BEFORE the crisis comes. Leaders can and should influence their organizations and, in effect, determine how resilient they can really be.  Military organizations are group and team oriented and highly interdependent. Applying a degree of esprit de corps and organizational cohesion contributes to resilience. This should be accomplished through a combination of servant leadership and role modeling. The most effective leaders will have a keen sense of self-awareness along with adaptability, they exude enthusiasm and optimism, taking changes and challenges with a smile. Confidence is a must, though the emotional maturity and humility is equally critical as the leader must be open to feedback and constantly seeking development and knowledge for themselves and their unit. 

Operational resilience must be incorporated into the organization’s policies, procedures and protocols and tested frequently. Ensuring that your unit or organization have the necessary resources is one piece but realistic scenario based training and testing is the real key to resilience. One rule that Rogers did not add to his list was that “It could always be worse”, without well-planned and tested operational resilience, it will.

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