Joseph Fiksel, Resilient by Design


For those of us who work in change management in organizations, we are more often used to think of “resilience” as a characteristic of individuals who demonstrate some kind of flexibility when faced with change. Beyond psychological aspects, we can also talk about the resilience of organizations or communities and this is what Joseph Fiksel does. He defines resilience in this way:

“Resilience is the capacity to survive, adapt, and flourish in the face of turbulent change.”

The complexity of considering the resilience of organizations resides in the fact we have to take into account different elements: people, products, processes, assets, markets, and communities. He also suggest that we should think about organizations as systems, but as living organisms rather than engineered systems, to emphasize the ability to flex and adapt to a changing environment.

The approach that he proposes is broader than both classical risk management and business continuity practices that tend to focus on specific elements of the system and fail to consider the broader context. This may lead to a narrow focus than in not in line with the kind of fast, sweeping changes we seem to see more and more nowadays.

The four attributes of resilience that are discussed in the book are: adaptability, efficiency, cohesion, and diversity. Resilience is created by managing the tensions between these 4 attributes and each organization must find its own mix. The author proposes to create a role of “Chief Resilience Officer” which includes the consideration of risk but takes a broader view (and may require an expanded skill set).

While he does not mention the VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) in the book, the kind of world he describes is very much in line with the world that Bob Johansen (2012) describes and what he proposes is an approach to enable organizations to not only survive, but prosper, in this kind of world. What he describes as the “new normal” is a world where crises are commonplace and where our inability to control the world that surrounds us increases the need for resilience.

I’d be curious to see what Fiksel and his colleagues have to say about the current trends in the resource industry (the one where I work), the drought in California (a personal interest of mine), and the economic crisis in Greece (where I have family), situations that have personal significance for me, but for which I could not think of “fixes”. With respect to the resource industry, I have the following questions:

  • If economic growth in China continues to slow, what happens to industries that have banked on demand fueled by it?
  • If China goes bust, what are the economic and social impacts to places like Western Australia? Other parts of the world where high demand for resources may cause temporary prosperity to isolated one-company towns? (Of course, there is nothing new about this, there are ghost towns all over the world but we are now much more concerned about sustainable development and human impacts.)
  • Given the current trends, demand is down for commodities like iron ore and prices are down. Organizations in this industry are cutting costs, reorganizing, outsourcing, off-shoring whatever can work can be, in an effort to ensure the viability of corporations. What will be the impact to locations where the work is eliminated? What will be impacts, intended or not, positive or not, to locations to which work is moved? What happens when fluctuations occur (up or down)? Have organizations built flexibility or have they only found a temporary fix? Have communities and various level of government really considered their long-term options?

Is strategic planning really looking at long term changes in the world? Are we really being strategic and creating organizations and communities where people can live and prosper, and can we ensure that people and in particular leaders have the foresight to design for resilience?

But is it even possible? Fiksel says: “As the world grows hyperconnected and the rate of change accelerates, the future becomes increasingly obscure. Humans have created order on an unprecedented scale, giving us the illusion of control, but we are more vulnerable today than ever.” Furthermore, “the type of order that we create is different from nature’s order; it is more tightly coupled, more rigid, and more brittle. The inevitable waves of change will eventually disrupt even the most elaborate structure.” He challenges us to find ways of integrating resilience and sustainability to create systems that can survive disruptions.

When I was an undergraduate at university, I used to like reading books about ecology, as I felt they gave a sense of the “big picture” of what was happening in the world.  My husband has often thought of my fascination with natural catastrophes (earthquakes and hurricanes!) as a simple morbid interest in human misery, but I am far more fascinated with the ways in which human beings and communities survive than with the events themselves. The newest literature on sustainability and resilience is even more multi-layered and interesting. While it makes the complexity of the world look less amenable to human intervention, it also provides fascinating insights on innovative ways to look at the complex reality that surrounds us.


Fiksel, Joseph. Resilient by Design: Creating Businesses That Adapt and Flourish in a Changing World. Island Press, Washington, 2015.

Johansen, Bob. Leaders Make the Future. San Francisco, Berrett-Koehler, 2012.

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