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Building Resilience: Navigating Challenges with Confidence

Updated: Mar 21

In Michael Bungay Stanier's book, "The Coaching Habit," there's a profound quote about resilience, "Resilient systems build in fail-safes so that when something breaks down, the next step to recover is obvious." This emphasizes the vital role that resilience plays in overcoming obstacles, both at work and life. In this article, we're going to explore what systems are, along with frameworks that can be used to help build resiliency, and review tactical steps to apply to your professional and personal systems to help those systems, your teams, and you become more resilient.

In a broad sense, a system can be defined as a set of interconnected and interdependent parts working together to achieve a common purpose or goal. Systems exist on various scales, ranging from the macro to the micro level and in both personal and professional contexts. Systems aren't inherently healthy or unhealthy, good or bad. They require energy and investment in order to continue to serve us in intentional ways and they can turn into battlegrounds when there are conflicting intentions for how they should be serving us. Take a look at the political and socio-economic systems in most countries to highlight that point.

At the macro level, systems can refer to large-scale societal structures, such as political, economic, or environmental ecosystems. On a more micro level, an example of systems within organizations include processes for engineering or people management and systems within communities can include educational, healthcare, or transportation systems.

At the personal level, systems are involved in our internal processes, behaviors, and habits including the routines, thought patterns, and emotional responses that shape our daily life and decision-making. In a professional context, systems encompass the structures, protocols, and procedures that govern how work is organized and executed within an organization. This can include formal systems, such as organizational hierarchies and workflow processes, as well as informal systems, such as communication networks and team dynamics.

Every system runs the risk breaking down. What sets resilient systems apart is the ability to anticipate these breakdowns and prepare for them in advance. Instead of being blindsided, resilient systems have built-in mechanisms that allow teams and individuals to address those breakdowns swiftly and effectively.

Purple flowers emerging from the snowy ground with the words, "Resilient systems build in fail-safes so that when something breaks down the next step to recover is obvious. Michael Bungay Stanier"

What is a resilient system?

It's essential to recognize that resilience isn't just about bouncing back from setbacks; it's also about having the foresight to prevent them or mitigate their impact. This involves proactively identifying potential failure points and coming up with backup plans or alternative strategies. For example, in a business context, it could mean having redundant systems in place to ensure uninterrupted service in case of an incident (e.g. use Google Chat if Slack is down) or employing cross-training to mitigate the impact of a single point of failure (e.g. "Brent's the only one that knows how to deal with that."). In a personal context, it could mean having a strong community that supports you by reminding you of your strengths and intrinsic value when you find yourself facing a challenging situation.

Resilience requires a growth mindset, continuous learning, and adaptation. It's not enough to have a single contingency plan in place or to "set it and forget it"; resilient systems are dynamic and evolving. They learn from past failures, adjust course as needed, and stay agile in the face of uncertainty.

As individuals and leaders, it's our responsibility to foster resilience for ourselves and our teams, not just our systems. This means building and nurturing a culture that values preparedness, encourages innovation, and embraces failure as an opportunity for growth, not just saying the words and hoping the behavior magically appears. You get what you incentivize, so ensure your metrics, goals, values, and performance expectations for all levels from an intern to the CEO are aligned to the behaviors and outcomes you want to see. You can start by investing in the development and democratization of skills such as problem-solving, decision-making, and emotional intelligence, which are essential for navigating most situations with grace and confidence.

Frameworks to help build resiliency

Let's explore a few of my favorite strategic frameworks for managing complexity and breaking it down into more manageable parts. These can help us overcome obstacles and thrive in the face of adversity both in personal and professional settings.

Systems Thinking

Taking a holistic perspective on company operations or within your personal life can help with resilience. Understanding the interconnectedness of various departments, processes, and stakeholders, or between our habits, relationships, and environment provides insight into potential sources of vulnerability. This allows us to proactively design fail-safes to navigate the complexities in our professional and personal lives with grace and resilience.

Cynefin Framework

The Cynefin (pronounced kuh-nev-in) framework provides a roadmap for navigating complexity at work and in life. Life is filled with diverse situations, ranging from the predictable to the chaotic. This framework helps us categorize these situations and tailor our responses to best suit the situation. For example, by recognizing when we're facing complex or chaotic challenges, we can lean away from seeking rigid solutions and instead embrace experimentation and adaptability, improving our resilience along the way.

SWOT Analysis

Both at work and in life, reflecting on our strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats provides a comprehensive assessment. By leveraging our strengths and opportunities, addressing our biggest and most relevant weaknesses, and mitigating potential threats, we can build a robust foundation for resilience. This proactive approach empowers us to anticipate challenges and develop strategies to overcome them with confidence.

Agile Frameworks

Life is dynamic and unpredictable, requiring us to embrace adaptability. Agile methodologies, such as Kanban, offer practical strategies for navigating uncertainty and responding to change. By breaking down our goals into smaller, manageable tasks and iterating based on feedback, we can learn, grow, and maintain momentum even in the face of adversity.

Drawings of the four frameworks discussed in the article.

Building resilient systems at work

Not sure how to approach building resilience into a system? Begin by conducting a SWOT analysis of your current processes to identify potential vulnerabilities. Where are the weak points in your system and what other systems interact with it? Try to identify what could go wrong, then use the Cynefin framework to understand the complexity of each, and think about how best to prepare. Take the time to brainstorm alternative scenarios and develop agile contingency plans.

Next, reflect on how well you prioritize flexibility and adaptability. The ideal state is to be able to embrace change as an inevitable part of life and remain open to new ideas and perspectives. Most things (and people) are a work in progress, so don't be discouraged if you have work to do in this area. Start by encouraging a culture of experimentation and innovation. Treat failure not as a setback but as an opportunity to learn and grow towards future success. One easy way to do this is to run retrospectives to analyze and learn when things don't go as expected, so history isn't repeated and your systems are continually improving and adapting. Make sure this is tied through in your performance reviews and incentives, because if people are only rewarded for successful attempts and aren't rewarded for trying, failing, and learning then you're not creating the right conditions for innovation to flourish.

Finally, and arguably most important, foster a supportive environment where everyone feels empowered to speak up about issues and collaborate on solutions. Building resilient systems isn't just about having the right processes in place; it's also about nurturing strong relationships and trust within and across your teams. Many leaders only focus on their own teams, but systems tend to be cross-functional, so if you haven't invested in building trust and relationships across teams and business units, it could be a struggle to build in resilience.

Building resilient systems in life

Michael Bungay Stanier's quote beautifully distills the essence of resilience as the ability to bounce back from adversity stronger than before. We've talked about how to start to build resilience into our professional systems but how can we build resilience as human beings?

A growth mindset can allow you to approach obstacles with curiosity and resilience, viewing setbacks as opportunities that can propel you forward. Practice self-compassion and be kind to yourself, especially in tough moments. Treat yourself with the same understanding that you would offer to a friend facing similar challenges. Expressing gratitude can shift your perspective and cultivate a sense of hope and optimism. Take time for self-reflection and use journaling, meditation, or introspection to identify areas where you can further develop your resilience skills. Aim for self-acceptance, not for perfection.

Life is unpredictable, and change is inevitable. Focus on what you can control and find creative solutions to navigate those unexpected challenges. Connect with your values and engage in activities that align with your core beliefs and contribute to your sense of fulfillment. Having a sense of purpose can provide you with the motivation and resilience to persevere in the face of adversity. Break larger goals into smaller, achievable steps, and celebrate each milestone along the way. By setting realistic expectations for yourself and acknowledging your progress, you build confidence and resilience in your ability to overcome obstacles.

Building resilience isn't just about individual efforts; it also involves the power of community. On our journey through life, we do not walk alone. Surround yourself with people who uplift and support you during difficult times. Cultivate meaningful relationships with friends, family, mentors, and peers who can provide emotional support, guidance, and encouragement when you need it most.

The concept of resilient systems is not just a theoretical idea; it's a practical framework for navigating the complexities of life and work with confidence and grace. Combining strategic frameworks with intentional action, we can cultivate resilience within ourselves, our communities, and our companies.

Take a moment to reflect on the resilience of your own systems and consider how you can strengthen them to better withstand and flourish as a result of whatever challenges may come your way. If you'd like support on your journey, I help leaders go from overwhelmed to confidently capable of inspiring your teams to achieve extraordinary results. Reach out today to set up a complimentary consultation.

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