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Organisational resilience: surfing through turbulent times

When Dr John Vargo speaks about resilience you quickly realise it is drawn from both his academic studies as well as personal experience. 

The academic side stems from his career working at the University of Canterbury since 1981. But he also vividly recalls the 2011 earthquakes: “In the first few seconds I thought it was just an aftershock but after about two seconds you know that is not the case when it doesn’t just rumble past and stop.  Things just continue to build and books on my bookshelves, typical academic I had hundreds of books on shelves everywhere, and it was like they were being shot out of guns at me.”

I am sitting down with Vargo because he is the co-leader of Resilient Organisations, a research and consulting group set up to study what that term “resilience” actually means in the context of organisations – think businesses, sports groups or even governments.

He and Dr Erica Seville started the group in 2004 when they were both academics at the University of Canterbury. Suddenly 2011 rolled around and they had their academic theories become part of a living laboratory when the Christchurch earthquakes hit.  

I want to better understand for myself what these terms actually mean and perhaps whether I can personally learn from the research that has been done on organisations. 

So what is the starting point when it comes to a definition? Vargo states: “Our definition for organisational resilience is the ability to survive a crisis and to thrive in an uncertain world.  We live in a turbulent world and it looks like it is becoming more uncertain, more turbulent and none of us want to leave to our children and grandchildren a world where we are barely hanging in there.  So becoming resilient, both surviving difficult times when they come, but also finding fresh ways of thriving, of really having a ball – in spite of that turbulence.”  

He goes further to describe this with a metaphor that those who have been to a beach recently and seen people out in the waves will appreciate: “You are at a surfing beach and these huge waves are pounding the beach and in the foreground you’ve got somebody who is just barely getting on, they don’t swim very well, they are being pounded by the waves – they are not doing at all well.  In the background there is this surfer really waiting for the next wave, they have this huge smile on their face and they catch it – and all of that unbridled power, they are able somehow to channel it and be having a great time in the process. We want to stimulate organisations and business and non-governmental organisations, Government departments, rugby clubs – it doesn’t matter what kind or size of organisation, that will become those surfers in turbulent times.”

Resilient Organisations offers consulting services but also has a lot of free resources they make available which have come out of their academic studies. 

These have a true grounding in the reality of what it takes to be resilient because they have been able to do studies of organisations who were impacted by the Christchurch earthquakes. After the immediate aftermath of dealing with the earthquakes in the first few weeks the team began to turn to what this might mean for their research:  “We had gone from a lot of theory, some application to some of our theory, but all of a sudden, we are finding ourselves in a living laboratory which I wouldn’t swear on anyone, but when you are in the middle of it is an opportunity you cannot overlook.

“And really following that the interest and demand for our research just went through the roof… We began to extend our research pretty quickly – we carried out a large survey of Christchurch and Canterbury organisations, about 1,000 randomly sampled across about 7 different industries to see how their recovery was going.”

One of the key learnings that came from that research was around what the primary concern for employers was in those early days.

Vargo elaborates: “You might have thought it would be their cash flow or their relationship with their customers but their number one concern from that first survey was the state of their employees and their employee welfare.  And we were just heartened and humbled by that – to see that New Zealand owners, business owners, employers, would be so concerned about their employees.

He says he doesn’t think that is necessarily unusual but certainly is not what you would expect from the media and movies where you expect bad behaviour and people to look after themselves and what we found in Christchurch was largely the opposite.

“That people go out of their way to look after their neighbour and they will put themselves out to help someone else and we found that was true of employers over and over again.”

“Our definition for organisational resilience is the ability to survive a crisis and to thrive in an uncertain world.  We live in a turbulent world and it looks like it is becoming more uncertain, more turbulent and none of us want to leave to our children and grandchildren a world where we are barely hanging in there.  So becoming resilient, both surviving difficult times when they come, but also finding fresh ways of thriving, of really having a ball – in spite of that turbulence.”  

We talk about what some practical tips are that any organisation could adopt to become more resilient.

Vargo says some of the advice that it offers is: just do simple things.  

“If you are not doing anything to build your resilience right now, anything you do is going to improve it.  So simple things like having morning tea with your staff once a month with a particular purpose of thinking, what if, when we came to work tomorrow power was gone completely or our building was gone or our major supplier from the UK or the US or China had failed – what would we do?  And sit down and talk to your people about what they think you should do.”  

Vargo lists some other simple steps that the leaders of any organisation could take like maintaining a complete contact list of all employees’ details and backing up computer systems – making sure to keep those backups and contact details offsite.  Many Christchurch businesses kept backups before the earthquakes but they were in their server rooms which then could not be accessed. 

His message is that simple things can make a big difference in preparing and becoming more resilient. For those businesses that are able to, there are even more steps that can be taken: “If you have the resources and time to do a full business continuity plan, great.  But our experience is most smaller organisations, they are just concerned about meeting the payroll this week and making sure their customers are happy and often don’t have the time to put into extensive planning – but there are still things you can do.”

Vargo attended the Social Enterprise World Forum in Christchurch last year and offers his perspective on this growing movement:  “We see ourselves as a social enterprise – we are a small research and consulting group – we grew out of the University of Canterbury but now we are an independent limited company.  

He says in New Zealand there isn’t a legal form for a social enterprise so you really have to choose if you are going for a not-for-profit type of arrangement or a company.

“We decided to go with a company structure but we are a social enterprise. We want to make profit, but we want to make a difference. We want to make sure that we are having an impact on our community and we do that in various ways but really our vision is our overriding purpose and we hope every day informs the way we work with organisations and in our small team of eight.”

As we finish our talk it is clear that Vargo has been able to combine both the academic research into resilience with the practical understanding that has come from the earthquakes. It strikes me that a lot of what we discussed would be of benefit not just to organisations but also to the individuals in those organisations. It also makes me wonder what steps I can take myself in order to learn to surf through turbulent times in the way he has described.

John Vargo’s top 5 tips for developing a resilient organisation:

1.  Build trust through engagement, transparency and accountability with your staff.

2.  Demonstrate you care about your people and need their help by shouting morning tea once a month and discussing how the team should respond to a natural disaster or other crisis.

3.  Backup your IT systems, including your staff contact list, and keep a copy off-site.

4. Keep that surfing metaphor in mind – embrace the complex, uncertain and turbulent future by learning to surf those big waves through agility and collaboration.

5. Be a leader who enables the leader in each person.


Steven Moe is an author, podcaster and partner at Parry Field Lawyers, solving legal problems for companies and purpose driven organisations. He hosts Seeds Podcast with more than 340 interviews of inspiring people and wrote the book, ‘Laying Foundations for Reimagining Business’.

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