Tag Archives: resilience

Surviving a Storm

12 Dec

“When there is a storm and you stand in front of a tree, if you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you see its stability.” (The Revenant, 2015, 20th Century Fox)

No one can accuse the protagonist of the film The Revenant, Hugh Glass, of lacking resilience. Glass keeps on going despite horrific injuries, hostile climate and unbelievable mental hardship. So, what allows Glass to survive in such harsh conditions and circumstances?

First, some context. In the film, Hugh Glass survives a vicious Grizzly attack, and is left for dead by his colleagues in freezing, arctic conditions after witnessing his son murdered. Torn to pieces, freezing, grieving and hungry, Glass makes his way across miles of snowy wasteland before carrying out an act of revenge on the man who killed his son and left him for dead.

Poetic license aside, it is obvious Glass has huge reserves of mental strength, fortified by a desire for revenge. Glass also has expertise in survival, and high tolerance for pain as he manages to not just endure his injuries but seal a wound in his neck with gun powder. But perhaps the most important factor in his survival is a chance encounter, when Glass is near death, with a Pawnee Native American who is travelling alone.

The Pawnee feeds Glass, carries him on his horse, and heals his wounds. This chance encounter, cemented with shared grief, provides Glass with a huge slice of luck necessary to survive. And this is the crux of Glass’s story- he got lucky. However, as the opening quote illustrates, without a certain degree of stability, Glass would never have been able to place himself in a position to get lucky.

Much is written about resilience, and it goes an incredibly long way. But luck plays a role too, especially in the form of help at just the right time, which carries you through the storm. Resilience keeps you in the game, it increases the chances of encountering luck, but rarely is anything achieved alone. The longer you foster the qualities to stay afloat, the greater the chances of being fed, carried and healed when you least expect it.


5 Golden Rules for Flexible Project Management

13 Jun

I previously wrote about methods to improve two aspects of project management

  1. Knowledge capture, and
  2. Communication

A focus on the importance of capturing knowledge and improved communication was inspired by a recent publication by Raconteur (Project Management, raconteur.net, #0376, 22\05\2016). Within this Raconteur publication was a piece entitled “The Five Golden Rules of Project Flexibility” (p.4), and provides the inspiration for this article.

Flexibility is essential for sustainable success, but for human beings, it can be very difficult to think and behave with flexibility. Below, I’ll outline some reasons behind this difficulty, before revealing Raconteur’s 5 Golden Rules.

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Change and Resilience

15 Mar

How could an organisation improve its resilience? It’s safety record? Its ability to manage uncertainty and identify risks? The temptation is to head into a change programme, adopting an external model based on success elsewhere. Or by creating a plan largely defined by senior management expectations and top down in nature. Although these approaches can work, they also carry risks.

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“The Power of Negative Thinking”

23 Feb

Positive thinking only gets you so far. It’s negative thinking which really defines success. This is the argument put forward in an interview between Canadian Astronaut, Chris Hadfield, and The Red Bulletin (Red Bull magazine). Hadfield explains the point

“Self-help gurus are always advising us to think positively and envisage success, but it’s about as helpful as thinking about cupcakes. Just thinking about them isn’t going to help. It’s more important to think what could go wrong with a mission. Visualize failings, not success. That’s what’s essential to survival as an astronaut. I was an astronaut for 21 years, but I only spent six months in space. The rest of the time, I was looking into every detail that might have gone wrong during a mission. Once you’ve understood all the potential risks and you’re forewarned against them, fear no longer plays a part in your thought process”

In my research, and the research I draw upon, this argument runs like a red thread through accounts of decision making, planning and adaption. For example, Crandall et al (2006) argue that experts have a far greater knowledge of “what could go wrong” with decisions, plans and strategies than less experienced and accomplished staff across a variety of professional fields.

Weick at al (2007) in their analysis of resilient organisations, which includes NASA, identify that resilient organisations have an obsession with the question “what could go wrong?” In other words, they are prepared for failure and far more likely to learn from it.

In Jim Paul’s (written with Moynihan, 1994) account of lessons learned in losing large sums of money on the trading floor, the authors cite “avoiding losses” as the most significant strategy for success. By focusing on failure, on what NOT to do, the chances of success significantly increase because at the very least, a trader will stay in the game longer.

The “power of negative thinking” counter intuitively increases confidence as people, teams and organisations are far more prepared, and positive, about their ability to absorb failure and adapt. I’ve researched and seen the above manifest in fields as diverse as clinical decision making and construction site management (examples are here)

Weick (2009) refers to the ability of an organisation to adapt through adverse circumstances as having the “requisite variety”. Requisite variety is the sum of an organisation that has systematically learned from failure, analysed and then shared the lessons. A learning organisation, focused on “negative thinking” creates a reservoir of responses, both formal and tacit, which can be applied to complex, surprising and uncertain events. Chris Hadfield, in the quote below, sums the concept up perfectly

“I never experienced any fear when I got into a spacecraft— not because I was brave, but because I’d practiced solving every problem, thousands of times. Being well prepared makes all the difference. It minimizes any fear and gives you confidence”.


Paul, J. Moynihan, B. (1994) What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars. Columbia Business School Publishing

Crandall, B. Klein, G. Hoffman, R. (2006) Working Minds: A Practitioners Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis. The MIT Press

Weick, K. Sutcliffe, K. (2007) Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in an Age of Uncertainty. Jossey-Bass.

Weick, K. (2009) Making Sense of the Organization, Volume 2: The Impermanent Organization. John Wiley & Sons

The Chris Hadfield interview with Red Bull, the Red Bulletin, at the link below



The Benefits of a Growth Mindset

3 Feb

Why do some people seem to improve at tasks whilst other people stay still? How do some people, teams, and entire organisations seem to bounce back from unexpected events whilst others seemingly never recover? And what provides some people with an accurate sense of “what is going to happen next?”

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner (2015) recently revealed the results of their multi-year forecasting tournament. The aim of the tournament was to identify people who could forecast world and local events accurately. Once these people were identified, the task was to assess what behaviours and methods produced this accuracy.

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Prevention-Strategies Aimed at Improving Health and Well-Being

21 Oct

How do you design, implement, evaluate and adapt a strategy aimed at improving the health, well-being and resilience of a community? The requirement within the UK of having to “do more with less”, places the focus of strategy on preventing poor health and well-being. Prevention requires greater public knowledge leading to improved self-management and decision making. It also means increased community resilience so coping and recovery occurs and occurs quickly, and the need for services to adapt (and ideally innovate) to feedback gained from increased public knowledge. Adaption for services also means leveraging current assets, designing “new ways of working” and creating partnerships to improve and widen delivery. Health and well-being strategies play out in an incredibly complex and changing environment, this places pressure on evaluation and adaption of a strategy in motion. So, with scarce resources where is effort best concentrated to improve prevention? In this article I’m going to examine an approach of collecting and applying data to improve the strategy of prevention by focusing on community knowledge acquisition, decision making and resilience.

At the heart of every strategy there is a philosophy. This philosophy is the guiding theory which has produced the strategy (Pawson, 2006) or the deep structure (Rugg, 2013) upon which the strategy is built. Both programme theory, philosophy and deep structure, in my view, share the same function- they are the intention, the vision, and the ideology. Around the philosophy is built a range of plans and tactics which are designed to deliver the strategy. Particularly in complex areas, with multiple departments, stakeholders and professions, each with competing world views and pressures, the plans and tactics can become a series of compromises and concessions. This can leave the central philosophy buried under a pile of political and professional debris. There is no immunity to these circumstances, and it can sometimes be helpful, but it’s a good idea to “gut” the philosophy, exposing its component parts, at the start of a strategy. The component parts can act as a “lens” to analyse the various plans and tactics which emerge to assess whether they contradict, complicate, improve or adapt the underlying philosophy. In short, the process aims to make sure the wood is not lost amongst the trees. Below is an example of how to potentially focus intention when creating and delivering a strategy aimed at prevention.

To focus on the prevention of poor health and well-being within a community requires certain conditions to be met. If a strategy intends to improve prevention then it creates (for example) the following logic chain-

What does increasing prevention within a community require?>

>Prevention requires increased knowledge of health and well-being across partner services and communities>

>What type of knowledge will improve prevention?>

>Local and contextual>what works, for who and why, and in what circumstances (Pawson, 2006)>

>How do you collect this contextual knowledge?>

>Placing a focus on tacit learning> Recovery from mistakes> Expertise

>What form should this knowledge take?> How should it be shared?>

>Simple, easy to understand, remember and apply>

The above is a crude example but it makes the case that prevention could be improved by developing, collecting and sharing expertise in the form of simple lessons and rules of thumb. If prevention requires increased knowledge then this knowledge needs to be easy to understand and apply by both services and communities. By contrast, if the knowledge which underpins increasing prevention is hard to understand, complex and difficult to apply then it is less likely to be used. This produces a “lens” through which to assess emerging plans and tactics- knowledge needs to be effective, practical and simple. This follows the research of Gigerenzer (2008) who found that simple solutions to problems in complex environments are both more effective and more likely to be used. In addition, Crandall et al (2006) found that if knowledge or knowledge support does not simply “plug” into existing ways of decision making it is highly unlikely to be used. In summary, prevention requires increased knowledge, but the knowledge needs to be effective and easy to use.

Drilling down further into the philosophy of prevention, I’ve so far tried to establish the role of simple usable knowledge. Simple usable knowledge should have the purpose of improving the quality of decision making. Preventing poor health and well-being can be improved, to a degree, by increasing the capacity to make better decisions through knowledge acquisition. This increases the “requisite variety” (Weick and Sutcliffe, 2007) of a community (and services) when faced with challenges. Requisite variety is essentially the range of coping strategies available to an individual and organisation when faced with unexpected events and challenges. Gigerenzer identifies a similar concept when he discusses the role of “adaptive toolkits” to tackle unexpected events and challenges. Adaptive toolkits perform a similar function, they increase the range of coping mechanisms available to meet challenges which deviate from the norm. Both requisite variety and adaptive toolkits are fundamental to improving prevention, largely through increasing resilience; the ability to bounce back from unexpected events whilst maintaining high function, whether that be mental health or service delivery.

To condense the points so far; prevention requires increased knowledge, knowledge needs to be simple and effective for it to be used, if it is used, it should improve decision making and resilience by increasing the range of options available to communities and services. To close the circle, all this is achieved through knowledge acquisition which is “packaged” effectively.

Following the above logic places the emphasis of data collection and evaluation on knowledge acquisition, with the intent of improving requisite variety and adaptive toolkits. This should not be at the expense of epidemiology, but should serve to support it. Collecting knowledge for the purposes of creating simple solutions to complex problems needs to be driven by a similar philosophy to prevention. Given time, access and budget constraints the collection methods need to be simple and highly effective, with analysis placed on simple usable knowledge.

I’ve covered the subject of methods under time, budget and access constraints in the article below, but I’ll return to it in the next article by focusing on knowledge acquisition.



Pawson, R. (2006) Evidence Based Policy: A Realist Perspective, Sage

Weick, K. E., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2007). Managing the Unexpected: Resilient Performance in and Age of Uncertainty, Second Edition. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass

Gigerenzer, G (2008) Gut Feelings: Shorts Cuts to Better Decision Making. Penguin

Crandall, B. Klein, G. Hoffman, R. (2006) Working Minds: A Practitioners Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis. The MIT Press

Rugg, G. (2013) Blind Spot: Why We Fail to See the Solution Right in Front of Us: How Finding a Solution to One of the World’s Greatest Mysteries. Harperone. With D’Adnese. J.

Threat, Challenge and Risk- Practicing Uncertainty

23 Jun

I write this article in collaboration with the internationally renowned sports psychologist, Professor Marc Jones. The work of Marc and his team on framing stressful situations as challenges as oppose to threats extends far beyond the boundaries of sport. Here we integrate our research and thoughts to introduce the application of threat\ challenge to risk.

Heuristic- the references to lab work and CV are the work of Marc and his team.

Organisations vulnerability can be measured by its approach to risk. If the organisation is governed by rigid procedures and processes then breaks to routine methods caused by unforeseen events are far more likely to result in catastrophes and the breaking of an entire organisational system. The reason the system breaks is because the people and culture are not capable of improvising under stress and so incapable of adapting to rapid change. This is the opposite of resilience and is basically a dysfunctional response to risk.

No matter how much an organisation attempts to identify and minimise risks it can’t avoid the uncertainty of the future. Unfortunately the complexity and aesthetics of risk models, manifested in daily procedures and processes, create a false sense of security- the future is in the bag and adherence to routine minimises risk. This approach can work for long periods of time, but the moment something unexpected happens people are instinctively scratching around for a manual which does not exist, instead improvisation is required.

The ability and confidence to improvise under testing conditions is a pillar of reliance, and resilience can be generated by exposing people and organisations to non-routine tests. Conversely, constant adherence to routine generates too much certainty into how the future will play out- you’ll always have that job, you’ll always keep your best customer, that market is secure, and that warning system always work; and this blunts error detection (see Crandrall et al 2006, Klein, 2011, Taleb 2012, Rugg et al, 2013 for examples). Not exposing people and organisations to tests means that when these future expectancies eventually get violated (and they will) they become framed as threats, and framing situations as threats is not conducive to improvising- people simply don’t have the confidence and range of trials to draw from required to improvise.

How does an organisation transform its approach to risk as a means of building resilience? Firstly, uncertainty needs to be embraced, an acceptance that routines and procedures will eventually hit their limits, and improvisation, and the innovation which springs from it, will be needed. Risk doesn’t just need to be written in a file or modelled, it needs to be practiced. Practice can take the form of resilience training where people are exposed to extreme events (in scenarios for example) which require thinking beyond the formal, routine is obliterated and its fragility exposed. This training in itself can produce innovation and insight, as Nassim Taleb advises in Anti Fragile- if you want to innovate, first get yourself into trouble. However, it’s important to remember you’ll never master or fully anticipate risk; it is something which waits in the future not the empirical past (Taleb, 2013).

The psychological element is vital; moving outside of routine requires risks to be framed not as threats but as challenges. Identifying risk as a challenge (as opposed to a threat) provides the resilience to deal with the risk. In our research we see individuals responding to stressful events, such as something unexpected and potentially harmful, in a challenge state when they are confident, feel in control and have an approach focus, wherein they are focused on what can be achieved not what might go wrong.

Interestingly we can measure whether individuals are challenged, or threatened, by an event through measuring their cardiovascular (CV) responses to the stressor. Collecting physiological data of this nature gives us an insight into to the nature of the ‘fight or flight’ response the person is experiencing. When exposed to a stressor an increase in the amount of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and a decrease in the resistance in the blood vessels indicates a ‘challenge response’. The blood flows to the muscles and brain more efficiently, providing the energy, to be able to deal with the stressor. When a person is threatened there is little change in the volume of blood pumped by the heart in a minute and there is an increase in the resistance in the blood vessels. The blood is less able to get to the muscles and brain more efficiently, reducing ability to deal with the stressor.

In our research CV reactivity to the psychological stress has consistently predicted performance in a range of cognitive and motor task with those exhibiting cardiovascular responses indicating a challenge state and performing better (e.g., Turner, Jones, Sheffield, & Cross, 2012; Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Slater, Barker, & Bell, 2013). In short how we approach unexpected, potentially harmful, events can determine our resilience. Being resilient, and displaying a challenge response to stress, does depend on our psychological characteristics and our past experience as mentioned. However our research also outlines how leaders in organisations can help develop resilience in their teams.

In our laboratory studies we have been able to manipulate people’s responses to psychological stress by altering the instructions we give them before a task (Turner, Jones, Sheffield, Barker & Coffee, under review). Prior to a stressful task if we emphasise feelings of confidence, control and an approach focus, participants respond physically with a challenge state. As a leader in business, emphasising the qualities your team has (confidence), drawing attention to what they can control (control) and keeping a focus on what can be achieved, not what may go wrong (approach focus) can help develop resilience in use the face of unexpected, potentially damaging events.

The framing of shocks and unexpected events as challenges potentially goes beyond leadership in the context of organisational behaviour in two ways. Firstly, the ability to absorb unanticipated risks by adopting a mind-set which allows problem solving as oppose to re-consulting the procedures can drive innovation. Tidd et al (2014) observes that innovation happens in tough times (recession) and is most likely carried out by those who see adversity as a challenge as well as a necessity- post traumatic strengthening (Taleb, 2012). Within an organisation, ideally, risk should actually strengthen the organisation (ibid), producing novel and innovative ways of working.

Secondly, people and teams focused on overcoming challenges-let’s call it problem solving- may actually reduce the cognitive load on leaders during tough times. In addition to potential innovation, this could potentially free up the time of leaders to focus on strategy, morale (both internally and shareholders) and communication. In closing, let’s say that uncertainty can be practised and then unexpected events may actually be welcomed.

Crandall, B. Klein, G. Hoffman, R. (2006) Working Minds: A Practitioner’s Guide to Cognitive Task Analysis. Bradford Books

Taleb, N. N. (2012) Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder. New York: Random House.
Rugg, G. D’Agnese, J. (2013) Blind Spot: Why We Fail to See the Solution Right in Front of Us. Harper One

Tidd, Joseph, Hopkins, Michael and Nightingale, Paul (2014) Positive and negative dynamics of open innovation. In: Open innovation research, management and practice. Imperial College Press, London, pp. 417-442

Turner, M. J., Jones, M. V., Sheffield, D., Barker, J. B., & Coffee, P. (under review). Manipulating cardiovascular indices of challenge and threat using resource appraisals

Turner, M. J., Jones, M. V., Sheffield, D., Slater, M. J., Barker, J. B., & Bell, J. B. (2013). Who Thrives Under Pressure? Predicting the Performance of Elite Academy Cricketers Using the Cardiovascular Indicators of Challenge and Threat States. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 35, 387-397.

Turner, M. J., Jones, M. V., Sheffield, D., & Cross, S. L. (2012). Cardiovascular indices of challenge and threat states predict performance under stress in cognitive and motor tasks. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 86, 48-57.

Avoiding the Spiral

30 May

I recently completed the analysis of around 50 interviews with people who had been experiencing mental health difficulties. There was a common thread which connected almost all the respondents-the respondent had encountered a shock or set back and then begun to spiral. In this article I’ll describe what the spiral is and how this personal issue is in fact a fractal; it affects the decision making and risk management of groups, communities and organisations. I’ll focus this article on the notion of spiralling and how it is relevant to organisations.

The common thread within the interviews was the response of spiralling to shock. The spiral occurs when a naturally defensive position is taken in response to a threat. The person affected begins to withdraw and disengage from their life, activities become abandoned, and friends’ phone calls go unreturned. The person attempts to mitigate against risk by shrinking their life into a more manageable size, but this is an illusion. This desire for defensive control locks the person into a spiral as their world becomes smaller and smaller. Paradoxically this then exposes the person to even greater risks as even the smallest daily event becomes perceived as a threat. Coping mechanisms erode along with the ability to adapt and improvise. Respondents in the interviews who had reached the bottom of the spiral frequently talked of “wanting their life back” and wishing to rebuild their confidence. The spiral is a draining devastating experience.

Expressed in basic terms, the spiral is essentially the moving from a broad frame to a narrow frame-the reduction of options, and the ability to plot a future, stemming from the exaggeration of a naturally defensive response to an unexpected event. The same thing can happen to an organisation when it encounters a shock. A panic can ripple through the organisation and people begin to feel besieged by threats, particularly if the shadow of blame hangs overhead. Teams and departments pull to centralise in this environment, reducing tasks to the basics, the activities over which they have total control. The result is expertise and improvisation becomes seen as risky and consequently quality of service falls. This is a risk paradox-defensive positions to avoid risk reduce initiative, and this reduction in initiative blunts error detection, thereby increasing risk. The organisation adopts a defensive strategy and as Sir Lawrence Freedman observes, when the strategy is to dig in, sooner or later it will be overrun. You cannot afford to stay at the bottom of the spiral for too long.

How can the spiral be avoided? Essentially by keeping the frame broad in the face of shocks, within an organisation this can be achieved through resilience training. Individuals and teams should practice exercises where their routine is blown apart by the unexpected and are required to improvise. Developing successful improvisations through training can help maintain confidence when the unexpected happens-it can also help foster innovation. This develops the associative memory, both individually and organisationally, by developing a mental warehouse of coping strategies which can be drawn from when the daily routine comes completely off the rails- which at some point, it will.

Rebuilding Organisations after Shocks

28 Apr

When an organisation encounters a catastrophe, it needs to rebuild afterwards. When the catastrophe is reviewed, quite often the analysis of human decision making and the system is subjected to blame- who is responsible?

This response leads to not only an increase in procedures and processes; it can also lead to a fall in confidence and the long term erosion of skills. Fear of blame ensures that people follow procedures, but what happens when a procedure is tested to the limit or rapidly becomes obsolete? This is where expertise and experience should take over, the ability to improvise during an extreme test.

Improvisation requires confidence and expertise; if an overly rigid adherence to procedures is followed then improvisation gets driven out in a trade off with avoiding potential blame. Unfortunately this also results in a fall in standards, it’s a risk paradox- avoiding the risk of blame creates a build-up of organisational risk as standards fall due to a lack of confidence in improvisation, people stop trusting their skills and experience. Improvisation and its results should modify and adapt organisational procedures, procedures shouldn’t suffocate improvisation.

Strict adherence to procedures may seem like a good idea on the surface level, especially after an organisational catastrophe. However, this approach also creates a brittle organisation, risks build up until they literally break the organisational structure. A better way is to teach and encourage improvisation when procedures are tested. This not only builds a stronger more resilient organisation, it also develops more resilient, confident and risk aware staff.

Building Resilience

2 Apr

The first time a significant loss occurs in someone’s life it comes as a shock, and psychologically a person can be left wondering how they are going to cope. Whether this loss is a job, a relationship, an idea which held so much promise, the feeling of uncertainty and damage is severe as an expectancy of the future is destroyed. The reason these initial losses are so damaging is simple- lack of experience. The lack of previous exposure to shocks produces overconfidence in how future events will play out. When this confidence is tested, the lack of previous exposure means lack of alternative options or coping mechanisms- previous expectations had become routine\ custom, so there was never any need for options. The ability to deal and bounce back from something never encountered before is a form of resilience and everyone needs it-no matter how secure circumstances feel, our view of the world has a shelf life, and we need options.

The same holds true for an organisation or a community, when tradition, routine or culture comes under severe challenge due to rapid external or internal changes. In my mind, every person and collective of people need to be able to risk assess, it leads to adaption rather than demise. Whole communities, dependant on a single industry have been destroyed by rapid economic changes and never recovered- this could be defined as risk neglect, and it’s understandable, but counterproductive.

It’s very comforting to hold faith in the present, or believe you have a clear idea of the future; but, as Taleb (2012) observed, risk is in the future, not in the past and you can’t wish it away. Taleb’s comment highlights the fallacy we naturally fall into, that is, rare events always happen somewhere else. This thinking is counter resilient, it narrows focus and places overconfidence in any model, vision, policy or person who claims the future is controllable; communities and organisations cannot fall into this way of thinking, doing so takes on board toxic amounts of hidden risk. In order to avoid this way of thinking, I’ll introduce critical incident scenarios as one means of building risk based resilience, contextualised within a community; but essentially the aim is to increase safe exposure to risk, thereby reducing the negative effects of shock.

A critical incident scenario is effectively a case study, carried out with groups of individuals, which challenges expectations and feelings of security. It achieves this by taking a communal belief or plan and rewriting them as catastrophes. Respondents are asked how they would deal with the fictional catastrophe and the results reveal a) the level of problem solving skills, indicating the richness of mental models people have available when confronted with risks, and b) the resources people perceive they have access to in order to cope with risks. Levels of data are very interesting in these types of exercises. Sometimes small amounts of data (respondents say very little) can be very telling in terms of how people perceive change-the mental models people apply to thinking about the subject are very inexperienced; they literally have nothing to say about it, so broadening the mental model can be an immediate goal.

The above highlights two key themes for dealing with unexpected risks- the ability to problem solve, as oppose to taking a passive stance during enforced change, and the available option to access networks which supply emotional support and resources. There is more to building resilience than what is written here, but it’s a start.