Conventional risk thinking is rooted in the anticipation of risk: identifying known risk events, predicting their frequency and impact, and preparing organisations to survive those risks.
In this model, risks are known, and the business is prepared for known risks. This approach has served the safety world well for many decades.
This does not, however, prepare an organisation well for challenges that can manifest in unexpected ways at unexpected times.
This is particularly concerning in the modern risk environment, in which the threats of cyber security, ageing infrastructure, and climate change are ever-evolving and not well-understood.
This is where the concept of resilience has particular appeal in approaching risk. Resilience emphasises the importance of the inherent ability of an organisation to withstand and recover from unexpected events.
Resilience requires that an organisation has a deep root system. A tall tree survives unexpected cyclonic winds by bending and flexing in the branches, while down below the deep root system anchors the tree to the ground. The root system is the core or counterbalance of the organism which allows the extremities to be exposed without the whole organism being overwhelmed.
The resilient deeply-rooted mindset requires that the individual value safety and be alert to challenges to safety. If I can see that a situation is not quite right, shouldn’t my deeply-rooted value of safety compel me to challenge that? And if a colleague of mine challenges something, shouldn’t my deeply-rooted value of safety also compel me to hear them out?
A resilient organisation is one in which separate individuals are brought together by a common mindset.
New challenges, such as an unexpected extreme weather event, often put strain unevenly on the business. The force is not always equally distributed across the entire organisation. The influx of water in one area of the plant compels the process supervisor to call on the plant manager for assistance. The plant manager, seeing the potential flow-on effects, activates the emergency systems needed to remove process workers from harm. The plant manager calls on neighbouring plant for assistance.
This interdependence allows the organisation to diffuse the impact of unexpected events rather than simply breaking under strain.
From the brief example given above, it is clear that interdependence is not a condition in which one unit mindlessly falls back on support from another unit. One individual assesses their ability to withstand the impact, and calls on specific support when needed. Thus it becomes clear that resilience requires interdependence without constraining the free agency of individuals.
A good local example of this practice is found in the Kwinana strip, 45 kilometres south of Perth. The resilience of the entire industrial estate has been written about and lauded over the years.
Each organisation on the strip is a free agent pursuing its own objectives. They make business decisions which affect how much production costs, how much product can be shipped to customers, and how much profit the operation can achieve.
But this free agency is rooted in a shared value of safety (deeply rooted mindset), a confidence in the common emergency response frameworks for the estate (deeply rooted systems), and an awareness of interdependence.