Resilience Amidst Change: Surviving Budget Cuts and Other Crises

Change is the new ‘normal’ Within the past two weeks, I had separate  conversations with four leaders in different sectors who face significant budget cutbacks with painful choices to make. No organization (private, nonprofit, or government) is immune. All face changing realities in the operating environment shaped by forces beyond their control. And every organization goes through challenging developmental cycles with leadership transitions, key personnel changes, and growing pains.

This close encounter with my clients’ change realities, reminded me of an encounter 5 years ago with one of the world’s most prominent (and expensive) futurists. I was a ‘fly on the wall’ for his presentation to a senior leadership team as he described 7 revolutions that will transform the world between now and 2025. One of the themes that impressed me was the “cascading change” generated by accelerating information flows in a completely networked world. Events and trends elsewhere can ripple economically, socially, and psychologically around the globe within hours, days, or weeks.

This expert boiled down his take-away message for leaders to three things:

  • Adaptability will become evermore critical to organization survival and success, so leaders need to cultivate this quality.
  • No problem can be solved at the level of consciousness that created it, so leaders need to be catalysts for new levels of resourceful thinking.
  • A leader’s task is not to foresee the future, but enable it.

These three keys can be integrated into a single leadership imperative  across sectors. Leaders have a duty to develop organizational resilience so the organization can respond resourcefully to the inevitable changes of the future.

Resilience enables adaptability. The first dictionary meaning for resilience is “speedy recovery from problems” and it provides images of elasticity, flexibility, and bounciness. As a boy, I had an inflatable clown with a weighted base. No matter how hard I knocked him down, he bounced back to standing, ready to go again.

Each of the four leaders described a situation where the organization had been knocked off balance by major financial changes outside of their direct control. How will their organizations engage with this change? Will they reactively muddle through a painful crisis, hacking the budget, and leaving a shell-shocked workforce wondering what is next? Or, will they come together, respond, and adapt, bringing resourceful thinking to the problem?

“Nature works with five polymers. Only five polymers.
In the natural world, life builds from the bottom up,
and it builds in resilience and multiple uses.”

Janine Benyus, author
Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature

Organizations are living structures. Leaders can take a page out of Nature’s design manual and use these basic ‘polymers’ of organizational development to respond to the present situation. Turn the crisis or challenge into an opportunity to build in resilience for the cascading changes of the future.

  • Commit to Cross Training: Organizations that cross train employees to fill in, shift roles, and combine duties when necessary are better able to flex and adapt to changed circumstances. Making painful cutbacks and operating with less may also provide opportunities to cover responsibilities in more flexible ways or innovate to a new way to better fulfill the mission.
  • Utilize Cross Functional Teams: Separated ‘stovepipes’ or ‘silos’ that reflect functional parts of the organization’s mission work may be historical habits rather than wise responses to emerging realities. It is easy for an organization to continue to operate inflexibly and unimaginatively in the absence of rich, creative communication with other parts of the organization. Operational rigidity is the opposite of resilience. Interdisciplinary networks of people with different backgrounds and experiences can become a creative resource to ‘crack the code’ on difficult problems.
  • Turn Every Supervisor into a First Responder: Change increases pressure and tension in organizations.  One of the common symptoms of more pressure and tension is increased workplace conflict expressed in victim thinking, resentment about increased workloads, blame storming, and other maladaptive reactions to change.  Supervisors should be the organization’s ‘first responders’ to conflict situations. They can be trained to confidently ‘triage’ and resolve conflict. This critical capacity throughout the organization builds resilience. First Responders prevent unhealthy conflict habits from forming and model positive, proactive engagement.
  • Tap Collective Intelligence: Leaders need to normalize and broaden the change conversation. This requires public spaces with healthy, group dialogue to engage the hearts and minds of everyone.  When addressing difficult financial or operational constraints, tap the best thinking of your people to solve the problem at a new level. Dialogue affirms the reality that “we are in this together; everyone has something to contribute; and we need to stick together.”
  • Use Your Values Statement to Set Priorities  In lean times or a constrained situation when hard choices must be made, there is an opportunity to have a transformative dialogue about what matters most. An organization that understands its core values can exit a crisis stronger because its values have been tested, clarified, and affirmed.

Leaders need a framework for thinking clearly about change   There are excellent models that describe the principles and the process steps of organizational change. Look for more on this topic in future newsletters. For more information go here on this site.

Practice Tip #10

Point to the Destination When facing resource limitations and other difficult realities of change, leaders must help everyone SEE where the organization is going and WHY it is worth the effort. This vision will help steer the change needed. You need alignment (unity) and well-coordinated effort to leverage available resources into mission results.  The leadership team must be clear about the destination and relentlessly consistent in communicating with everyone to assure this unified effort.

Words of Wisdom

“Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right things.”

Peter Drucker  leading thinker on organizations

“Human beings have enormous resilience.”

Muhammad Yunus social entrepreneur, Nobel Peace Prize

“The moment we believe that success is determined by an ingrained level of ability as opposed to resilience and hard work, we will be brittle in the face of adversity.”

Josh Waitzkin  author ofthe Art Learning