In which we can no longer afford to be efficient

Catherine Howe
5 min readJul 25, 2021

Rather than running around our organisation saying ‘we need resilience’ over and over I want to unpack what I mean. I’m doing it here as a way of working and thinking in public — it helps me to develop my ideas and is part of the openness which I think of as a building block of working in a system and not just an organisation.

Resilience is the thing you lean into when something unexpected happens; it’s what gives us the capacity to adapt and it inherently relies of a sense of abundance and choice as without those we retreat to be purely reactive. It’s a different goal to efficiency because it assumes that change will happen — and as a spoiler alert you can’t build it just by flooding old structures with new money.

As individuals its about that sense of knowing you have a bit extra to give in your personal energy tank as well as the knowledge that you have some control over how that energy can be best spent.

As organisations, there has to be a basic resilience in core services, this means the obvious stuff of no single points of failure, business continuity and enough free capacity to be able to deal with, for example, staff shortages.

However basic resilience isn’t enough. We are now living in a time of huge uncertainty with a climate emergency which puts us perilously close to the scenes we are seeing in other parts of the world in terms of catastrophic events. If we look more parochially, the national uncertainty around how we emerge from both pandemic and into a post-Brexit world makes the future difficult to chart (am now appreciating the embuggerance caused by the delay of the Fairer Funding review acutely). To deliver any kind of change, to move forward, or be able to respond to the unexpected (hello 2020) its about being about to swarm around problems and have the capacity to be able to deal what comes at you without dropping any important balls. All while trying to move in the direction you choose not the one you are pushed in. This isn’t about setting up new and different teams to manage change — its about making sure all your teams are ready and expect change.

Organisational resilience is about being able to do that without an internal battle about what you need to swarm around. This means leaders sharing a situational awareness so that these moments are shared and recognised but above all the ability to prioritise is critical — and having organisational principles and a clear north star from your strategy are helpful touchstones when you need to do it at pace.

Fundamental to this is the ability to move forward incrementally, testing and learning, experimenting and iterating and ultimately weaving together what we are learning in our response to change with our shared purpose around what we are there to do as an organisation.

This swarming also needs to be able to set up multidisciplinary teams quickly — or to have these as part of the organisational design — if the problem or opportunity is big enough to swarm around then it will be complex enough to need different skills blended together to address it.

Finally it’s about having enough structure to give people a sense of place and context but the ability to flex and adapt at pace to work outside of those structures. Your organisation can’t be resilient unless the people within it have resilience and understanding where they sit and how they are supported is part of this.

Building organisational resilience needs the right mindset and also needs to be affordable — that is the design conundrum. While we can’t afford efficiency any more because of the need to be constantly in motion with change, we also can’t afford to just grow the organisation to create that resilience — we have to rethink the way the organisation works.

Part of me, the part honed running start-ups and then an SME, the part which never lost the small knot in the stomach which is the salary bill and other people’s mortgages, appreciates this because when money is tight design really matters — and so it should.

If I think wider, across the system we operate in, resilience is about having the being able to reach across organisational boundaries to be able to come together with shared purpose. Systems rely on the resilience of organisations and individuals within the system as well as the relationships we form. This is a whole topic is its own right and I’ll come back to it at some point.

As leaders there is a big fat arrow here pointing the fact that we need to find ways to help our staff develop or redevelop their own resilience. I don’t know a public sector leader who is not concerned about the levels of fatigue in their people and I am acutely aware of the need to balance the need to support communities and our economy with the need to create a sustainable working pace for our people.

Resilience in this context is a very personal thing; things which recharge one person exhaust another, often our feelings of control are deeply connected to our own feelings of power rather than structures at work and we often have no idea of the draws on people’s resilience that come outside of the workplace. I don’t know the answer to this but I want to be exploring how we do more about supporting people’s resilience over the coming months. This has to be a parallel to what is needed for all our communities — as resilience has been tested everywhere.

The other big fat arrow is pointing at the need to create clear priorities and an organisational approach that allows you to adapt them if the context changes. So many organisations have done this brilliantly over the course of the pandemic and the work we are doing as a leadership community this summer is intended to make sure that we translate what we have learned into our organisational design and approach as well as developing our sense of shared priorities.

Systemically we are doing work to explore what it means for us to work more closely and in partnership with our communities; we want to look at how we work across our organisational boundaries to do this.

I am conscious of the huge gulf between resilience and efficiency as concepts. One intended to create capacity to deal with change and the other intent of refining each thing to the leanest version of itself. We have been pursuing efficiency for a long time and have cut structures and processes to the bone in doing so but this is no longer enough — and we are not going to just repopulate the processes that were cut to make those efficiency gains. We have to reinvent those structures and processes for a more networked and digital age and reflect what we have learned about the need to create organisations that are designed to flex and adapt.

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Catherine Howe

I'm all about thinking, doing, multidisciplinary practice and being kind…in a socio-technical way