Robust, Resilient, and Adaptive Organizations

We frequently read articles encouraging organizations to be robust, resilient, and adaptive. But what do these three terms mean?

We’ll start by acknowledging that there are multiple definitions out there, as well as articles that seem to use some of these terms interchangeably. However, we’re old school, and believe that careful use of words promotes clear thinking. So with that in mind, we offer the following short explanations of these concepts.

“Robust” strategies and plans are expected to achieve their goals under a wide range of possible future conditions. In practice, robustness arises from three underlying choices:

  • Design of contingency plans for the most important future situations that have been anticipated (recognizing that in a complex adaptive system, it is impossible to anticipate all possible contingencies);

  • Establishment and monitoring of indicators to provide early warning when these new situations are developing; and

  • Establishment of criteria that trigger implementation of contingency plans.

“Resiliency” refers to how much an organization’s performance declines in response to a negative external event, and how long it takes to return to the previous performance level.

Resiliency becomes important when robustness fails.

Resiliency is a function of many interacting factors, including, for example:

  • Redundancy and modular design to contain non-linearities;

  • Maintenance of resource reserves (hyper-efficiency usually comes at the cost of resiliency);

  • Strong organizational capacities for problem detection and problem solving;

  • Structural choices, like the establishment of incident management teams; and

  • Regular crisis simulation and response training.

“Adaptability” refers to an organization’s ability to maintain a high level of performance over time, even as its environment evolves. It is a much broader and more fundamental concept than either robustness or resiliency, both of which it includes.

Adaptability is one of evolution’s three core metrics, along with effectiveness and efficiency. Tradeoffs between them are inescapable. The basic organizational processes that drive adaptability are also well known:

  • Feedback: The collection or provision of information about the extent to which an organization is achieving its critical goals, and the extent to which those goals are sufficient to ensure survival and success in the current environment.

  • Variation: Creation of options (in effect, hypotheses) for changing the current situation

  • Selection:  Piloting options (in effect, experiments), evaluating their initial results, and choosing which to scale up.

  • Retention: Changing organizational processes, systems, structures, and norms to permanently incorporate lessons learned from the most successful pilots.

Finally, while these three concepts are easy to describe, the increasing rate of organizational failure suggests that as the environment has become more complex and uncertain, designing robust plans, building resilient organizations, and maintaining a strong capacity for adaptation have all become more challenging to implement and sustain.