Let’s Seize the Moment — Sustaining Organizational Resilience Beyond Crisis

Will Watson
May 21, 2020 · 7 min read

By Will Watson, Kathryn Maloney, and Sam Spurlin

May 20th. We are five months into one of the last century’s largest, single, global shocks — a moment of unprecedented turmoil and upheaval. Around us, many of our fellow citizens fell victim to illness. Many more of our neighbors, family members, and former colleagues lost their jobs. But work also continued.

Travel all but ceased. Critical supply stockpiles didn’t exist. Offices shuttered. Workers signed in at home alongside partners and roommates while educating children between calls. Demand on bandwidth and technology tools increased exponentially. Companies such as Slack, Zoom, and Trello reported dramatic surges in daily active users as organizations were forced to recognize the necessity of virtual capabilities. Organizations removed internal barriers and expanded access to asynchronous, cloud-based collaboration tools far faster than they would have ever conceived of before the crisis began. IT departments swiftly caught up to the technical and infrastructural pressure on server and bandwidth capacity due to a future that came overnight.

And yet, our organizations are also realizing that while infrastructure and tooling are critically necessary to serve teams working in this new reality — for any hope of business continuity or crisis response — they alone are insufficient to meet the future of this moment.

We have found ourselves on a steep slope into the future of work. Teams have delivered work in ways that they would have never dreamed possible twelve weeks ago. This has been done with a toddler on their laps or an elderly parent needing care at home — all while sitting in converted closets or guest bedrooms. The way we once conceived of and conducted work turned a page.

The crucible of rapid change that Covid-19 ushered in has asked us to fundamentally reshape how we meet challenges, how we confront and be in the flow of change, and how we design our systems and the way that we work. What we’ve experienced may be the quantum leap needed to actualize even far more resilient systems — ones inherently designed and conditioned to flex and respond in a relentlessly shifting world.

Being fully present with and actively learning what this new relationship to change is teaching can become your accelerated entry point into truly generative organizations, adaptive ways of working, and participatory leadership.

A Practice to Meet the Moment

At its core, organizational resilience is about surfacing and leveraging the capacity for agency, attention, connectivity, and interactivity at the edges and within the entire anatomy of a system. This way, when shocks — small and large — to a system occur, individuals and teams deep within and across the organization are conditioned to sense and adjust with greater ease.

What follows here are some starting points for how you and your team(s) can further tap the capacity already present, and reinforce your lessons rhythmically.

  • Take time out of execution mode to carve out intentional space to pause, reflect, and learn as individuals and teams. “What have we learned since the crisis began?
  • Using what presents itself, brainstorm a list of ideas for how your team might be able to work differently.
  • From that list, choose one of the ideas to try. It does not need to be the best idea or the most perfect solution. Simply choose something you can try that is within your sphere of control, that may make life as a team a little bit better. Call it an experiment — something you and your team will try to see what about it works and what doesn’t.
  • Try the experiment for two days, two weeks or two months.
  • After the period of time you set, pause again to consider what worked, what didn’t, and what you learned.
  • Then name another experiment to practice intentionally — and repeat.

Step One: Pause

Pause the execution work for a few hours. We are over two months into working differently. Bring your team together and hold a retrospective meeting. It’s an opportunity to reflect and learn from your shared work since “normal” ways of doing business disappeared. The following are useful prompts to get going.

  • Since COVID-19 shifted our ways of working, what has worked well about our team’s shift to virtual work? What have we done well?
  • Since the beginning of the crisis, where have we seen challenges? What hasn’t worked so well?
  • What have we learned from and about our transition to virtual work?
  • What can we do differently as a team to get 10% better in our virtual way of working over the next two days, two weeks, or two months?

Step Two: Design how you will work differently

Coming out of the reflection, be intentional about what you want to change to make your work a little bit better. This is critically not about the most impactful or important thing you can do that requires approval from a leader or a massive shift in how the team works. The idea is to move into small changes that will guide you into better ways of working as a team. Call it an experiment so you hold it lightly, yet carry it with rigor to see what you find out.

The key idea is to get explicit about what you are choosing to try and then connecting what you are trying to outcomes the team wants to deliver.

  • What should change if we want to get a bit faster or more efficient in how we accomplish our goals and objectives within our current constraints?
  • What can we do to make virtual work more fun, satisfying, and relational?
  • What is a thing we can change as a team if we want next month to be better than last month?

Brainstorm a list of ideas prompted by the above questions. Choose one (or several) to name as an experiment. Ask the team if the experiment is “safe-to-try?” Commit to it for a specific time period.

Step Three: Root the experiment into the team’s work

To ensure the experiment doesn’t get lost, fold it into the team’s normal work rhythms to check in on it regularly and hold one another accountable to try what you’ve committed to. Evolve the way you are connecting and interacting by doing your work differently — with intention and rigor.

Step Four: Hold another retrospective

Step 4 looks much like Step 1. Convene the team after whatever timeline you committed to. Ask yourselves:

  • What worked well?
  • What didn’t work as well?
  • What have we learned?

Step Five: Start the cycle again

Based on what you learn as you review together during the retrospective, design a new set of experiments to try and build what you are trying into your day-to-day — to ensure they are explicit.

The above practice is one simple, yet powerful way for teams and organizations to take stock of these last few months and live into designing better systems and ways of working. Cracking open dialog, consciously connecting to one another, and confronting what it actually feels like to be in the here and now means we are intentionally interacting with the flow and patterns of change and the composition of complexity. Nobody can predict what comes next, but every one of us has agency to seize this moment, expand collective resilience, and live into the shifting paradigms being set in motion in 2020. And in so doing we meet the needs of a changing world — now and in the future — from a place of readiness.

Will Watson is an organizational design and transformation practitioner, startup coach, and strategic advisor to leaders. He launched his own consulting practice in 2015 and co-founded Compass in 2016 before joining The Ready in 2017. His superpower is system sensing and gracefully facilitating leaders and teams into better versions of themselves. He lives in the mountains of Tennessee with his family where he enjoys making photographs; running and climbing; and catching tadpoles.

Kathryn Maloney, M.A. ABS is an organizational design, systems change, and culture transformation practitioner and strategic advisor to leaders. She works closely with progressive leaders finding their way into the future at some of the world’s largest global organizations. Her method of practice combines the behavioral with the structural, enabling systems toward radical transformation on both axes. She has been a partner to The Ready since January 2016. An avid traveller, foodie, music and wine lover, she lives in Brooklyn, NY.

Sam Spurlin is an organization design consultant, advisor, and writer fascinated by what people and organizations can do when they marshall and use their attention deliberately. His background is in positive organizational psychology, coaching, and teaching. He has been with The Ready since 2015 and lives in Arlington, Virginia.

The Ready is an organization design and transformation partner that helps you discover a better way of working. We work with some of the world’s largest, oldest, and most inspiring organizations to help them remove bureaucracy and fundamentally change their approach to better suit the complex world in which we all live. Learn more by subscribing to our newsletter, Brave New Work Weekly, checking out our book, or reaching out to have a conversation about how we can help your organization evolve ways of working better suited to your current reality.