By Ankit Mahadevia, CEO of Spero Therapeutics, as part of the From The Trenches feature of LifeSciVC
For anyone that’s part of a fast paced, growing organization, resilience is the key to thriving. It supports our audacity, ability to tune out the naysayers, and ultimately possess the stamina to prevail. These days, though, it feels increasingly like everything taxes our resilience more than ever before. As organizations, formerly simple things like having an office party draw on our resilience, and already complex things like coordinating global operations certainly do during the pandemic. As individuals, simple things like sending kids to school test our resilience in new ways. Now more than ever, leadership teams need to think about how to cultivate resilience as an organization to be ready for the long journey of fulfilling the mission. This piece shares a few thoughts that our teams and I’ve collected while building organizations that have been resilient to the curveballs the world has thrown our way.
What is organizational resilience?
Montes and Suarez define an organization’s resilience in their Harvard Business Review piece: the ease with which an organization adapts in the face of ambiguity, volatility, uncertainty, and change. A leadership team’s focus must be on organizational resilience first. As we’ll go into, the resilience of individuals is necessary, but not sufficient for success. Resilient individuals can certainly shape the resilience of their enterprises. However, it is also true that an organization can waste the resilience of its team members and be unprepared for change. So, what can we do as leadership teams to promote resilience?
How do organizations build resilience (or not exhaust it)?
- Mission clarity: In times of uncertainty, knowing the “why” is key to adapting. Now more than ever, there is power in believing in a mission greater than ourselves. Further, the idea of working to to do good in the world accrues to resilience. How best to do build an understanding of the mission? It pays to communicate (or as we say at Spero, wave the flag) early, often, and as many ways as possible, ahead of events that test your team’s resilience. At Spero, we build the mission into our recruitment, hiring, onboarding, and reinforce it through our All Employee discussions and weekly messages to the team. The mission also lives in the language we use with each other, emphasizing how our objectives ultimately mean something for the patients we are trying to help.
- Planning: Montez and Suarez note that teams that routinely deal in crises, like SWAT teams, practice their response to a range of potential disruptive scenarios. While it may be rare that your team will need to rescue a hostage, planning for the major emergent disruptors of your business can still help with organizational resilience. The process allows you to think about the resources you’ll need, refine the plan over time, and lower the emotional temperature in a crisis. How best to go about this? My colleague Rene Russo details this as part of a long range planning process here, as do we around downside planning here.
- Hire for resilience – Although a team’s focus should be on organizational resilience, supporting the resilience of individuals is table stakes. First, hiring resilient individuals can accrue to a resilient organization. Resilient individuals have had wins and losses in their careers (preferably more wins!). They still have an open line of communication between their heart and their head. They have grit, determination, and experience. They are open to growth. They have made mistakes, talk about them openly, and have considered how they might do it differently in the future. They know coming into the organization that while the path that they have chosen is based on an important mission, it will not be easy and there will always be obstacles. Prior articles (see here) review more of my thoughts on how to select for resilience.
- Invest in: A team that’s overtaxed either professionally or personally is less likely to drive organizational resilience. This is both intuitive, but also the subject of multiple studies (see here for a review). So, what to do about this? The power of entrepreneurial organizations is a team who will walk through walls because they are invested in the organization’s success. As leaders, we need to ensure that strength doesn’t become a weakness. When things are stable, encouraging your team to look after themselves, investing in wellness, and modeling this behavior (when possible, actually taking a vacation yourself, and thinking about overlapping goals where you can) means that there will be more gas in the tank when it’s needed.
- Empowerment – Empowered teams contribute to resilience, perhaps most of all. The same actions that empower can also build organizational resilience:
- Free flow of information – Information is the lifeblood of resilience. Knowing what’s going on empowers teams to make their decisions in the context of the full mission. Further, informed teams focus on what’s in front of them rather than overthinking what they don’t know. Naturally, not everyone can know everything all the time,, nor should they (especially in public companies). Further, when we are all working virtually, there are practical limits to the circle we can inform. The key, though, is intention and progress over perfection. An organization can encourage teams to share what they know across functions when they can or should, seek input across functions when it’s relevant, and communicate at regular intervals. We promote this at Spero by tying qualitative and quantitative incentives to this behavior.
- Speed and clarity of decisions – free flow of information does not mean that all that are informed can have input on decisions. Part of planning ahead for moments of resilience is pre-planning the decision architecture in those scenarios. Knowing who’s on the team, who decides, and how they will inform others provides clarity and enables focus. . Further this clarity avoids rehashed or slow decisions that can sap our resilience. We in particular like the RAPID framework developed by Rogers and Blenko. It provides a clear roadmap for making decisions as a team. We build this into our training for leaders at the company.
Overall, I’ve learned that treating your teammates like empowered adults tends to build resilient organizations. Teams that know the ultimate goal, that have planned for the downside, focus on their own resilience, and practice the art of sharing what they know and deciding quickly can take on the world, no matter what it throws their way.
Many thanks to Spero’s Jamie Brady and Jacqueline Kirby for their contributions to this article