Lessons for Organizational Resilience

Jul 15, 2021

The years of COVID have been like no other. In fact, some of the most consequential events in world history occurred within the initial 18-month period. The events have been catastrophic – the pandemic alone should have provided enough organizational resilience learning to last a lifetime.

However, compounding problems, in addition to an already bad situation, have continued to hamper recovery. When we delve deeper into the dynamics of three global events, some lessons emerge to create a more robust organization.

In reviewing the Pandemic response, the Capitol insurrection, and the Texas power grid failure, we see multiple, critical fail points. Within them is an organizational treasure trove of learning points, and three areas in particular stand out as critical for future planning. Although these points may not absolutely ensure organizational resilience, they will certainly place you in a better position for response and recovery for future events.

Understanding your Adversary

Approaching global uncertainty is not unlike going into battle with an unknown adversary. However, there are “known” unknowns, and although recognizing them makes them no less daunting, it does help to better understand the battleground. We can already place floods, fires, and generalized climate change into the category of known unknowns. These are the enemy.

Conditions were no doubt different today than when Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu was writing “The Art of War”, and the adversaries are significantly different. In fact, organizations are probably not planning for an attack from a warring opponent, however, there is great wisdom contained in this context.

When we break down the three events referenced earlier, the fundamental fail point in all three examples was underestimating the adversary. This is a common mistake related to overall preparation for worst case scenarios.

Although many organizations conduct regular drills, exercises and other resiliency training, there can be an overall perception that “this will never happen to us”. World events tell us otherwise.

The assessment of global trends should be reviewed and built into organizational resiliency training. For instance, the slow and conflicting responses to the COVID-19 disease that led to a global pandemic that is still holding us all at gunpoint, is a clear example of underestimating the adversary.

Furthermore, the likelihood of a deep freeze in the southern state of Texas during a pandemic would have been thought realistically improbable. Yet it happened. Certainly this was an example of a planning failure, but primarily an underestimation of the adversary (cold weather).

In the Capitol Insurrection, there were certainly multiple planning breakdowns among authorities that were required to address a rioting mob. But this tragedy on 6 January 2021 can also boil down to underestimating the adversary.

Unified Front

The components of responding to critical incidents have been ingrained into organizations through the application of the Incident Command System (ICS).

As an instructor of ICS, I reference the inception of response principles developed as a result of failures from California wildfires in the 1970s. Isolated organizational responses created the framework which is widely utilized today. Pulling on a thread from this example from 50 years ago reveals an eerily similar failure to the aforementioned current examples. Again, we underestimated the adversary – Fire.

Yet despite a strategic framework which provides a systematic plan for success, we still see organizations struggling.

A component within the ICS teachings is Unified Command. By definition, it is: “an authority structure in which the role of incident commander is shared by two or more individuals, each already having authority in a different responding agency.”

The key part of this definition is the reference to a different responding agency. Any organization that is familiar with critical incident management (police, fire, ambulance) knows that responding as a single entity is a rarity.

In fact, even if responding as an organization, you often rely on technical and/or tactical experts to respond in coordination to the incident. Accordingly, this begs the question as to why we continue to see inadequate responses to significant events.

To be effective, it is critical to prepare and coordinate with your partners to reinforce the principles of unified command. By regularly meeting and sharing plans with those who would likely be your partners in an event provides a better understanding of the timeframes for assistance.

As witnessed in the insurrection, the Capitol Police waited countless hours for reinforcements. In my opinion, they were in an untenable situation. Tactical troops being deployed to any event, take hours to muster, prepare and finally respond. By planning with partners, timings for response would have better been quantified and understood. The same could be said for the Texas disaster and pandemic response.

Organizations need to do a more thorough job of ensuring unified approaches to response. This can only be done by regular discussions and training opportunities with your partners. The cavalry may be coming, but it would be nice to know exactly how long it will take them to arrive.

Understanding Failure

Assessing responses to any disaster is a methodical process, and takes time. The After Action Report (AAR) is built into any emergency management program. One mistake that is often made is not taking the time to analyze actions that were taken during a crisis event.

Organizations can get caught up in the myriad issues required to realign business operations, and forget to focus on the failures. Unfortunately, this can provide a false narrative for recovery.

The emergency management continuum of Respond, Recover, Mitigate and Prepare, provides a gauge on where an incident has landed for your team. You can only make course corrections based on what you have prepared for as an organization.

Regardless of the outcome, there should be lessons garnered. Accordingly, if you have responded to a known, there should be areas which were not addressed based on an event which you did not anticipate. What have others done to modify or amend preparations for the unknowns?

Following any major event, lessons learned will be dissected through inquiries or reports. This is an opportunity to observe and learn.

Although your organization may not be directly in the line of fire for a riotous mob or natural phenomenon, the after action process will be chronicled publicly and readily available to review. There are always critical lessons that can be applied.

Analyzing open source reports from others will garner insight as to organizational fail points. Therefore, as a rule of practice, someone should review or monitor hearings, inquiries and reports.

How someone managed a critical event will contain some tangent from which you can better understand a response. Learning from others’ failures will also help build your own resilience. Topics such as communication, collaboration and planning will invariably reverberate throughout the AAR process.

In this world of information overload, look for opportunities to better prepare for the inevitable. Take the time to carefully observe world events while asking: “What would we do if that happened to us?”


The human tragedy and lives lost in 2020 was unimaginable. And yet, the world has adapted to new norms and pivoted to continue the delivery of critical services.

Businesses are slowly “coming back online” to restart a waning economy. Taking the time to understand how each aspect of the global pandemic and other catastrophic events has changed organizations is the new objective. It has arguably been the greatest learning year ever.

Building back will take years, however, because we’ve all had a front row seat to chaos, the greater collective will be better prepared for the next “bad thing”.

  • Understand what happened.
  • Analyze and critique the responses outside of your own organization with humility.
  • Learn how those that failed were ill-prepared and ensure that your organization does not journey down the same path.
  • Build momentum for organizational resilience with facts and careful planning.
  • Champion learning based on existing worse case scenarios.

We hope there will never be another 2020, however, it would be a disservice to those who have suffered if we do not adequately prepare for the next one.

A former airspace security commander and RCMP officer, Cam Kowalski is currently a sessional instructor for the Justice Institute of British Columbia, and a Senior Associate with Ally Emergency Management Inc.