Resilience – so much more than we think

Head of Consulting, Central Government, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence Read time: 3 mins
Andy Lethbridge reflects on his experiences and lessons learned from working at pace, in high pressure environments over the last 18 months
Resilience – so much more than we think The Oxford Languages definition of resilience is pretty straightforward:
re·sil·ience
/rəˈzilyəns/
 
noun
1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties;
    toughness.
    "the often remarkable resilience of so many British
    institutions"
2.  the ability of a substance or object to spring back
     into shape; elasticity.
     "nylon is excellent in wearability and resilience"
 
It is a word that has been oft used in the last 18 months. The UK’s National Health Service, in its entirety and to a person, has demonstrated resilience; our children and their teachers; society in general – the tag of being resilient has, at some point or another, been given to pretty much everyone.
 
But over the past 18 months, I have come to the conclusion that the definition is too narrow, or perhaps has been so over used that it has diluted the meaning. Don't get me wrong, I think we have all displayed toughness, and continue to do so; we are all gradually recovering, recognising that for some it will take much longer than others. We will all need to be considerate of the ongoing recovery and adjustment, our duty of care, as everyone will be different in how they readjust.
 
The narrowness of the definition, though, relates to a couple of things I have noticed during my work on the most pressurised, volatile and fast moving programme of my nigh on 25 years in consulting. At its height, it was relentless and crazy, everyone involved was working exceptionally long hours and going above and beyond repeatedly (and unsustainably).
 
And during this period, it occurred to me that it has become increasingly frowned upon to say "no". The default was "we'll find a way" which, whilst admirable, often led to much unnecessary work – saying “yes” became a proxy for not asking for thinking space, or a little more rigour.
 
Further, the weight which was thrown around in the middle of last year was considerable. Almost every conversation we were having was littered with the names of incredibly senior people who were all demanding more and more, faster and faster. It became impossible to not absorb the requirement and figure out a way to get stuff done, regardless of the cost (physically, emotionally, mentally, financially, reputationally.)
 
And therein lies the issue. Being resilient isn't just about bouncing back – I think resilience, in terms of toughness and better mental health, needs to be considered in the context of the ability to say “no,” to force people to think before they act. To not be cowed. I know I didn't do this enough, and it is something I reflect on constantly.
 
How I asked more and more of my team; how I used the context of the programme as the justification for my demands which in hindsight, and something I have subsequently communicated, was tantamount to emotional blackmail.
 
Again, as I look back, rather than trying to find a way and mitigating others inability to prioritise, saying “no” would probably have achieved more! If the last 18 months has taught me anything it is that it isn't necessarily about bouncing back, or recovering, it is about turning up, every day, despite relentless pressure. Coming back to your laptop knowing that things will change, but being willing to grind through it.
 
The work we have done on the programme we’ve been involved in has been staggering, but it has not been easy, and the way in which the team has handled the extreme volatility and extreme pressure has been amazing – the relentlessness of the work has been matched only by their relentless desire to deliver and to help. It was important to maintain that link to outcome, when the work we were doing wasn’t an outcome in and of itself. Keeping close to the end goal and making sure the team were aware of the success and positive impact the part of the value chain we were responsible for was having, made a huge difference to morale. Those wins, of any size, took the edge off the relentless pressure.
 
And help they have done, far beyond what I think many of the team realise. The resilience and the mental toughness to keep on going has delivered real value, but it has also shown me that resilience comes in ways that far exceed the dictionary’s current definition. And perhaps that will be one of the key lessons of the pandemic – the last 18 months have showcased humanity’s ability to rise to a challenge and served as a vivid reminder to always look after your teams and to never underestimate what is achievable. The dictionary’s authors will – hopefully – have been taking note.
 

About the author
Andy Lethbridge is Head of Consulting, central government, at BAE Systems Applied Intelligence
andy.lethbridge@baesystems.com
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Andy Lethbridge Head of Consulting, Central Government, BAE Systems Applied Intelligence 2 November 2021