Some 50,000 bolts of lightning struck the UK in a 12-hour period last week, as storms swept across parts of northern Europe. Only 100 were measured at more than 100 kiloamperes, 10 times the usual strength. One such super-bolt struck London Stansted airport at about 2am on the Sunday, blowing up a control panel and knocking out its whole aircraft refuelling system for more than six hours.
Amid the resulting cancellations and delays, passengers struggled to excuse the airport. But Stansted was prepared. Its refuelling network runs with dual fuel lines, dual feeds, multiple pumps and control systems. Resilience, a spokesman told me, was “built into the design”, just not enough resilience to soak up that one-off lightning strike, the original metaphor for everything that seems vanishingly unlikely to happen. Until it does.
Resilience used to be a low priority, except among specialists and people working for always-on companies such as water utilities. It generally slipped to the bottom of the agenda for everybody else. I remember attending frequent meetings of the Financial Times’s New York business continuity committee in the early 2000s — but only after the 9/11 attacks violently woke all Manhattan businesses and residents to the potential shortcomings of their back-up plans. For a time, we had our own family resilience plan, complete with pre-determined emergency meeting points, and supplies of duct tape, bottled water and canned food.
Likewise, it took the financial crisis to galvanise many banks, regulators and governments to think about how to respond to, and protect against, previously unimagined threats. The number of references to “resilience” or “resilient” in the FT stood at a fairly quiescent 600 or so in 2005-06. It more than quadrupled to a panicky 2,700 uses of the terms in 2008-09, the peak of the crisis, and has not fallen back much since.
Resilience has also spread from the Portakabins of hard-hatted operations directors in steel-capped boots, to MBA programmes and primary schools. Five-year-olds now join resilience classes to improve their wellbeing, confidence and overall mental health. Executives are coached to achieve the stamina of an ox, the grit of a marine and the mindset of Serena Williams.
All this prepping for uncertainty and change is, of course, positive. But it is also easier than resolving some of the wider pressures that make resilience training essential.
Roger Martin of the Martin Prosperity Institute lays part of the blame on our obsession with efficiency. He accepts that efficiency has made economies more productive, cut poverty and improved living standards. But, he told a breakfast in London last week, it has also become “the god that we worship unthinkingly”.
Take rubbish collection in the US, which over time became concentrated under the most efficient operator, the late Wayne Huizenga’s Waste Management Inc. Or almonds, over 80 per cent of which are now produced in one Californian valley, as a result of consolidation. Such monocultures are fragile and vulnerable to calamities, says Prof Martin. Bad management could wipe out WMI; bad weather could destroy the almond crop.
It is true that resilient workers are better able to respond to such changes. I can’t help thinking, though, that organisations are really hoping that their newly flexible, gritty managers and staff will serve in the vanguard of another push for efficiency, without due regard to the system’s safety.
Some of Prof Martin’s solutions to such global weaknesses involve adding more friction to the system, from the top down. They include rules to oblige investors to hold stocks for longer, more active antitrust policies, and targeted trade barriers. This would require a degree of intervention and co-ordination that may be beyond most governments.
He also advocates for more corporate-level resilience: better jobs, higher wages and more staff. After British Airways suffered a disruptive failure of its information technology following a power outage a year ago, I referred to two types of redundancy: one involves laying off staff, the other laying on resources, to ensure, among other benefits, companies have enough slack to cope with occasional upsets.
As Stansted’s approach to the recent storms suggests, organisations cannot afford unlimited insurance. An oil company executive once pointed out to me that the ultimate back-up plan would involve building two interchangeable rigs for each oilfield, an unfeasibly costly solution.
But in too many places, too many people are running a single, consolidated system, with little or no resilience — and that distant rumbling could be thunder.
Get alerts on Management when a new story is published