The success of any strategy depends on conditions we cannot foresee in advance. Those conditions reveal themselves during implementation, and become obvious only in hindsight. The question, then, is not whether surprises will happen, but if we can make strategies that succeed regardless. Resilience is the difference between rats and polar bears. Rat populations are resilient; they will rebound from almost everything. Polar bear populations, on the other hand, are ‘brittle’. Even a small change can see their numbers irreversibly plummet. Ecologist C. S. Holling noticed this important difference: Some systems perish if disturbed. Others stubbornly bounce back.

From their natural origins, resilient properties have been widely applied to man-made systems; to defence systems, cyber systems, supply chains, disaster management, business models and societal systems. Resilience is an emergent response to success-dependency on the unknown. We investigated resilient behaviour in businesses implementing strategy highly uncertain conditions. We conducted 36 interviews, and found six classes of resilient strategy implementation:

Exposure: Change the setting to fit the needs of the strategy

  • ‘We decided not to make a Chinese footprint.’ CEO after considering the conditions for setting up production in China.
  • ‘Munich is a lot closer than the US. That made a huge difference to our strategy execution’ CEO responsible strategy implementation discussing the importance of location.

Buffering: Add excess capacity to what must not fail

  • ‘We identify projects that we must win, and then we do something extra, adding more management capacity and putting more effort in talking to clients, and finding the right partners’. CEO discussing initiatives that must not fail.
  • “If you are too ‘locked down’ in how to invest, and something happens in some country after six months, you lose the opportunity to respond to those opportunities.’ CEO discussing the value of uncommitted reserves in strategy implementation.

Modifiability: Implement a strategy that can be easily modified

  • ‘What shouldn’t change is the desired outcome. But you have to be able to ad apt your approach to that outcome.’ CEO discussing committing to outcomes rather than approaches.
  • ‘We should not come [up] with a global strategy of 250 pages because then there’s no room left to manoeuvre.’ CEO on avoiding commitment to detailed plans.

Redundancy: Launch parallel, expendable strategies, and defer commitment

  • ‘We expect nine out of ten to fail, or at least four out of five to fail, and that’s not really part of our culture.’ CEO discussing accepting expendability of strategy initiatives.
  • ‘We would probably have 10, 15, what we would call, moonshots. […] we may consider to invest more and also some of the others we may decide to kill early on’. CEO on high-risk, high-gain strategy initiatives.

Multifunctionality: Implement strategies with many successful outcomes

  • ‘If you come up with a very firm, fixed end-state, that might be right at the point you did that, but maybe five seconds later or a year later, that might be totally wrong. […] it’s more [about] direction than destination.’ CEO about open-ended initiatives.
  • ‘Some projects are just projects, business. Okay […]. [But] this project we should have some learning around, and say, “Is there something in there that we can apply to other projects”’. CEO discussing initiatives with multiple objectives.

Reversibility: Implement reversible and low-downside strategies

  • ‘Where are your exit ramps? Where can you get off this?’ CEO on designing reversibility into high-risk strategy initiatives.
  • ‘It was a couple millions or something like that. So, I knew, I mean, I’m not going to blow up the company if we just throw it out. So it was limited’. CEO considering the reversibility of an initiative. Resilience is an alternative to prediction. Predicting the future is hard to do, and most predictions are wrong. An alternative is to assume that the future is unknown, and asking, ‘how could we succeed regardless?’

Further reading:

  • C. S. Holling, “Resilience and stability of ecological systems,” Annu.Rev.Ecol.Syst., vol. 4, pp. 1–23, 1973.
  • M. Wied, J. Oehmen, and T. Welo, “Resilient Design Properties of Driverless Transport System,” in DS92: Proceedings of the DESIGN 2018 15th International Design Conference, 2018.