One of the most common descriptions of the High Reliability Organization (HRO) is that it is “resilient.” Here is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines resilient:
- The capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
- The ability of a substance to spring back into shape; elasticity.
The definition points directly at two important characteristics of organizational resilience. First, organizations show resilience in response to a difficulty or deformity. Resilience is reactive, not predictive. Thus, it is not the kind of capacity that is based on a careful analysis of potential faults, with mitigating solutions pre-positioned to cope. In fact, the resilient organization will invent solutions to unexpected problems on the fly.
The second feature is that when an unexpected problem occurs, the elastic—resilient—organization will continue to function normally. It continues to produce desired outcomes despite the problem (and internalizes the solution so that a future response to the problem is even faster).
Weick and Sutcliffe summarize the resilient organization very clearly:
In moments of resilience, conditions vary yet the effect remains the same. That difference lies at the heart of a commitment to resilience.
The “commitment to resilience” implies that the organization’s management and culture have the proper attitude toward unexpected conditions or failures. It emphasizes the central point that high reliability organizations (HROs) are not organizations that do not experience failure. Rather, they continue to generate the main outcomes of their mission despite failures.
To adapt to something unexpected, the people in the organization are ready to recognize the event for what it is, avoid complacent assumptions, and refuse to oversimplify or routinize—the problem before an effective solution is identified. This is a capacity that organizations with a commitment to resilience will develop over time.
Workers in resilient organizations will create innovative responses to failures as needed, almost improvising in real time. However, they are not working in an unstructured system when they do this. They need to have both exhaustive expertise regarding the portion of the organization affected by an event, and need the confidence to act as developed by prior empowering support from all levels of the hierarchy.
For a more complete review of the High Reliability Organization, download our newest whitepaper, Building a High Reliability Organization.
 Weick, Karl E. and Kathleen M. Sutcliffe. Managing the Unexpected: Sustained Performance in a Complex World, 3rd Edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2015. p. 98.