The difference between resilient and reactive organizations

Will your organization change itself to death?

Open organizations are adaptable, but the way they adapt to changing conditions can define (or destroy) them.

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Open organizations are flexible and resilient organizations. This means they're able to change themselves as the world around them changes. It's a critical skill for remaining relevant over time, both for individuals and organizations.

History is full of examples of organizations that evolved to meet changing times (e.g., Nadella-era Microsoft) and those that didn't (e.g., Kodak sitting on digital photography to protect its film business). Today, with so many startups focused on disrupting traditional industries—particularly in and adjacent to the tech sector—it's clear that remaining the same is not an option most organizations will have.

But does that mean organizations should be undergoing top-to-bottom alterations all the time?

Organizations, open or otherwise, cannot spend every moment changing themselves. For one thing, doing so would mean abandoning whatever mission they purport to have. As the saying goes, "if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything." That adage, while most common in the context of political beliefs, is applicable here too.

So it's important to draw a distinction between reactive organizations and resilient ones.

A reactive organization will act whenever it receives a stimulus. Did a competitor just announce an awesome new product? Better do something! Did donations drop last quarter? Better do something! Did we just have a public relations disaster? Better do something! Noticing a theme here? The reaction is always to do something, often because the organization perceives inaction as inflexibility.

Resilience is different. Sometimes, an organization returns to the same state after sensing a stimulus. Think about a kid's balancing doll: You can push it and it'll wobble around, but it always returns to its upright state. Maybe your donors diverted money one time to support relief efforts for a major disaster. Maybe your competitor's product spontaneously combusts. Maybe a politician puts a foot into their mouth and the public forgets whatever you did yesterday. In some cases, the best reaction is none at all. Resilient organizations undergo change, but they do so in the service of maintaining equilibrium.

Organizations, open or otherwise, cannot spend every moment changing themselves. For one thing, doing so would mean abandoning whatever mission they purport to have.

Of course, maintaining equilibrium might require reaching a new state. Your competitor's product totally changed the landscape and you need to adapt, because failing to adapt would mean certain demise. Would Microsoft Office 365 exist without Google Docs? Probably, but Google Docs made it clear that the future of Office had better include web-based collaboration. Your donation system still requires making a phone call to change the amount of a recurring donation, so you add new functionality to your website. The European Union is upset about how you handle user data, so you change your processes to comply with GDPR.

You might ask how anyone can know the best way to respond to a stimulus—when to end up back in the original state and when to achieve a new equilibrium. If I had the answer for that question, I'd be too busy sitting on a beach somewhere to write this article. It's a challenge. Undoubtedly you'll make mistakes.

But being an open organization can help. You'll improve your chances of success if your teams and departments take advantage of feedback mechanisms allowing people to share ideas, encourage peer cooperation, give people context for their work, and allow space for making mistakes.

Those mistakes will happen. Becoming a resilient organization is no guarantee against them. But a resilient organization will respond to stimulus in a measured and controlled way that helps it maintain equilibrium—a focus on what matters most to it, despite what's changing around it.

About the author

Ben Cotton - Ben Cotton is a meteorologist by training, but weather makes a great hobby. Ben works as a the Fedora Program Manager at Red Hat. He co-founded a local open source meetup group, and is a member of the Open Source Initiative and a supporter of Software Freedom Conservancy. Find him on Twitter (@FunnelFiasco) or at FunnelFiasco.com.