Organisational ResilienceGamechangers in Resilience: It’s All About People

In the ever-changing business landscape of today, adaptability holds paramount importance for companies. Acknowledging this reality, iluminr has introduced the Gamechangers in Resilience, a series that celebrates influential leaders who have effectively championed flexibility and resilience within their organisations, clients, and communities.

This interview series casts a spotlight on remarkable individuals from diverse parts of the world. They have not only empowered their teams, ecosystems, and communities to thrive in the face of adversity but have also served as catalysts for growth and transformation. By recognising their accomplishments, iluminr pays homage to the remarkable impact and unwavering dedication of these leaders in achieving success, even amidst challenging circumstances.

Colm Gayton is an accomplished professional in business resilience, boasting over a decade of experience. With a solid resiliency background, Colm has established himself as a trusted advisor, guiding organisations to thrive amidst adversity.
Throughout his career, Colm has been pivotal in guiding organisations through various crises, including natural disasters, cyber incidents, and operational disruptions. By anticipating challenges and implementing proactive measures, he has safeguarded business operations, minimised financial impact, and ensured seamless continuity.

Motivated by an unwavering commitment to organisational resilience, Colm remains at the forefront of emerging trends and technologies, continually enhancing his expertise. With a strategic mindset, meticulous attention to detail, and unyielding dedication, Colm is a gamechanger fortifying business resilience and enabling long-term organisational success.

 

Q: Tell us a little about your journey to the field of Resilience.

Colm: My journey started when I was involved with the Royal Irish Regiment (British Army). Had exposure to contingency planning, ops planning etc. which gave me insights into what to do when something goes wrong (or try identifying as early as possible when something might go wrong). This led to exposure to TEWTS (Tactical Exercises without Troops) – field-based tabletops is probably the closest description for those not familiar with the term. I had some fantastic DS Staff who really helped push me along. When I left due to injury, I bounced around a few departments (within TCD) – solely because I could adapt to whatever challenge my boss threw at me (mainly project management). I’d done an MSc in Strategic Management and was intrigued by strategy but also change. But as it happens, I ended up doing a dissertation on Crisis Leadership, which led to the discovery of another MSc in Emergency Management! As I was completing this MSc, we had a number of issues within TCD that impacted some of our key research areas (loss of a lab to fire, loss of research due to fire and subsequent water damage) which put me on my boss’s radar and the then COO. I helped to review the Emergency Planning and Business Continuity for the College and made some recommendations to the Emergency Group within. And I think that’s when I first realised there was a career path for me to follow. So, I left TCD to move to the UK and take up a full-time role within the NHS as a Resilience Officer. And the rest, as they say, is history….

 

Q: As leader in scenario testing, how do you create realistic and thought-provoking scenarios that challenge organizations’ resilience capabilities? Can you share an example of a particularly impactful scenario you have developed?

Colm: History! I look for events or issues that have impacted other organisations at different times that can be used in today’s operating environments. Starting from that, I then look to see what we’re trying to achieve – what are our objectives for the scenario – what are we trying to learn. Then it very quickly becomes a storyboard which gets socialised with subject matter specialists who finesse the finer detail (I know of an exercise run by someone I know where they had worked for nearly 6 months on the scenario for it to be blown apart by someone with a PhD in Physics within 5 minutes of the scenario being rolled out!). Then it’s a couple of dry-runs (depending on the size and scale) to hone the tempo (and allowing for some adaptation on the fly depending on how the scenario and flow go). And then it’s down to the facilitator. That’s the key to it all.

Someone who can tease out the conversation, inject energy and, sometimes, set the cat amongst the pigeons. You can have the best scenario in the world but a poor facilitator kills the momentum and flow.

One of the best scenarios (although not everyone was happy within my Senior Leadership) was a ‘blackstart’ exercise. Essentially, we’re were going to switch the power supply within the hospital to our emergency generators. Very simple scenario. However, as we built out the scenario (and dug a bit deeper), we found a myriad of issues – contaminated fuel, lack of knowledge around the power system (retirements had seen over a 100 years of knowledge leave) etc. so we ended up pulling the exercise at the last moment as we weren’t sure if it was safe to do. So we played it out as a discussion exercise, which opened up other cans of worms. And, typically with sod’s law, 2 weeks later, we had someone cut through the main power supply to the hospital, leaving us on emergency supply for about 8 hrs. However, because of the discussion exercise, the response team was better prepared and we had the situation under control remarkably quick. Between the scenario development, the discussion exercise and the actual power cut, we did end up highlighting that infrastructure budget was needed to fix the issues discovered so it became a larger corrective actions project then I suspect most of us anticipated but without undertaking the exercise, we would have only discovered when a real-event occurred.

 

Q: What are some key considerations when scenario planning and testing?

Colm: Buy-in from senior management is key. You may find some very unappetising issues that need to be tackled, and that needs the support of your leadership.

Once you open Pandora’s box, and discover what’s inside, it can be very hard to put a lid on it – it all comes out eventually!

Focus – we live in a world of distraction. The one thing to ask of those participating is their focus. In some instances, you get 2-3 hrs annually with an executive team for an exercise. With the virtual nature of exercises nowadays, you find that people can be distracted by a myriad of things. It impacts performance, and I believe, it sets a tone for the engagement.

And that leads to another issue – the engagement itself. We, as practitioners, have to think outside the box moving forward. Gone are the days of PowerPoint slide decks (they still have a purpose). We need immersive and interactive scenarios (and testing) to try to reflect the realities of the situation faced. It works for in-person exercises but for this new hybrid or remote facilitation, we can do, and must do better to simulate the stress and uncertainty and conflicting nature of events. Technology is there. Scenario Planning is there. We just need to marry the two to be in a position to convey in real-time how this scenario could play out, in terms of velocity, and impact, and benchmark the current capability versus what we believe will happen in a sedate tabletop exercise driven by a PowerPoint presentation.

 

Q: Resilience often requires thinking outside the box. Can you describe a situation where you used creativity to develop a unique solution to a complex resilience problem?

Colm: This question made me laugh. I’ve somehow always managed to find myself in programmes that have no budget, or little budget but expectations from above are out of kilter with capability. In some ways, I’ve enjoyed it because I’ve had to think outside the box and come up with possible solutions (and fixes). And other times it’s frustrated me, because with some smart investment, you can leverage technology to support (and I say this as firm unplugged believer) to develop excellent programmes.

I think the best example was our response to the Ukraine situation. We’d built a number of scenarios in January 2022 amongst our small team, and used some indicators to identify when the invasion WOULD happen. We continued to evolve the scenarios as events unfolded, and we built out a strong response to challenges we faced, despite never ‘road-testing’ our response – quite the baptism of fire. The scenarios have been incredibly helpful as we’ve moved through the evolving situation on the ground in Ukraine – so much so we had a scenario similar to the coup against Putin (Hawk or Dove following) and nuclear fallout in the event of an incident at one of the Nuclear Facilities in Ukraine (and one I hope remains just a scenario!)

 

 

Q: In your opinion, what role does cultural diversity and inclusivity play in building resilient organizations? How have you incorporated cultural perspectives into your resilience planning and execution?

Colm: This is an interesting (and possibly delicate) subject. For me, I think you have to take into account the different lens that people view or perceive things. It’s a double-edged sword in some respects.

Our beliefs, values, experiences etc. all create a unique perspective at an individual level. Harnessing that at the team level is key to cracking those tame and wicked problems that we face.

But despite differences in say gender, colour etc. if you have people from different backgrounds but have gone through the same schooling, or all taken similar courses (MBAs always strike me as creating a robotic lens for individuals – controversial!), then I think we very quickly fall into Groupthink and other similar biases that impact, rather than support, different ways of thinking, judging and ultimately decision-making. So it’s a fine line to find that balance within a team that delivers on greater perspectives from a cultural and inclusivity position. All teams need it. I think the culture and climate of an organisation plays a significant role in providing that psychological safety and environment for people to feel confident enough to voice their opinions, and open enough to consider other points of view.

I tend to try and think (without sounding corny) as a human being first and foremost. I don’t have all the answers so it’s important that people I work with know that their voice is as important as mine. And as we operate globally, I’m not an expert on the nuances of cultures in the APAC region (for example). So that’s left to my superb colleague in that region but where we work well together is that we look at what works in EMEA (for me) and we evolve it to work for APAC. And similarly, for the AMER region too. My superb colleague is on top of his game there, and we share experiences (from old roles and recent events) to make sure we accommodate the idiosyncrasies for that region. However, we all work from a global structure, where we adjust, refine and sometimes, rework our approaches to ensure we capture as diffuse and varied attributes as we can to be effective at local, regional and global levels.

 

Q: Technology is rapidly evolving, and so are potential risks and disruptions. How do you stay ahead of emerging technological threats and leverage technology to enhance organizational resilience?

Colm: This is a head spinner for everyone right now. AI is a game changer for the next couple of years (and probably beyond). For me, I err on the side of caution, so I look to research groups focused on the risks from AI and other such technologies. I can see the benefits too (as I speak with friends who are involved heavily in the technology space, including AI). One issue I do see is the demise (or recalibration) of Business Continuity (or being lost completely to Operational Resilience – it’s not BCv2.0). If you see companies building out technologies on the back of AI (and other future tech), it’s not a place for manual workarounds. The technology is either on or off. So now your Incident Management (IT) or Crisis Management (Business) is critical. As is your Supplier Resilience. And you need to identify these risks or issues early – good risk management will make or break the resilience of an organisation. However, my own personal opinion is that risk management is a cottage industry in some sectors and offers very little, other than keeping compliance or a regulator happy (they don’t always know everything!). It fails to catch the attention of executive boards (SVB as a recent prime example) and thus lives in the shadows until it all goes horribly wrong and risk, and then resilience, gets blamed for failing to alert and prepare the organisation properly!

I don’t think you can. To keep pace (at best), let alone get ahead, would require greater support from executive leadership, better budget, better risk approaches, better technology, and an acceptance that you can do your very best but even the best get bettered.

For an organisation to survive (and thrive – isn’t that the very essence of resilience!), you have to look past resilience as it current is, and look at sustainability (forget the ESG aspect for a moment) where an organisation learns from its disruptive events (in its environments or industry wide), adapts to the changes needed, and becomes anti-fragile.

That path (and there’s more components to it) leads to enhanced organisational resilience. And that includes looking at other areas such as strategic foresight (not forecasting), scenario planning, business wargaming etc. to enhance the organisations to see issues earlier, plan for possible futures, and have that adaptive capacity to bend its culture, processes, and strategies to the evolving environments it operates in.

 

Q: In your experience, how have you effectively engaged senior leadership and stakeholders in understanding the importance of resilience? Can you share a successful strategy you used to gain their buy-in?

Colm: It’s a mixed bag to be honest. I’ve had some fantastic senior leadership who has seen the value in resilience, and then I’ve had other senior leadership who only want to do the bare minimum (and wonder why it all unravels so quickly when faced with complex issues).

As most of my ex-colleagues will attest, I’m not one for sugar-coating resilience matters (although I do do the art of diplomacy fairly well!).

I’ve had ‘conversations’ with COOs, CEOs and CFOs (they who hold the money strings hold the sway!) and sometimes it’s not what they want to hear but it’s what they HAVE to hear. Doesn’t always make me popular but at least everyone knows where they stand and what needs to be done (always offer up options – easier to get a conversation going with options, rather than just giving the issues).

Going back to the ‘blackstart’ exercise – it unearthed a number of issues that needed investment to ensure the hospital was resilient. Whilst hoping for a successful exercise, and getting/gaining senior leadership buy-in and trust, it went well beyond that. It became a wider project with other areas involved (with similar issues) that had the full approval of the executive team. In fairness, it was a new team, hadn’t been in the hospital very long, and relied on having frank discussions about the state of play within the hospital. So in some regards, we got lucky that buy-in was assured, and they were open to hearing the ‘bad’ news and supporting the proposals we put forward. Having ‘accountable person’ legalisation in place in the UK also helped but that’s another story altogether!

 

Q: The field of resilience is constantly evolving. How do you foster a culture of continuous learning and improvement within organizations you work with, and how do you encourage your own professional development?

Colm: I’m actually in the middle of another MSc in Behavioural Science at LSE. This came about as I changed my outlook on resilience early on. I went in thinking that having fantastic plans was the key to success. Planning to the nth degree (which is a good thing) and having a slick, well-structured document that captures everything was the end result for me. I very quickly understood that I was very wrong.

Resilience (and the component parts) is all about people. If you can understand how people behave in the midst of a crisis, you can better understand how to prepare people for those types of situations.

I’d read lots of books on psychology related to decision-making under stress, judgements under uncertainty, checklists to reduce ‘hot-state cognition’ etc. However, in certain industries, especially the regulated industries, the old way of thinking was firmly stuck in plans. Thankfully I think that’s changing and we’re starting to see that people are being put at the centre of planning.

My unfortunate colleagues receive a lot of articles and links on a weekly basis! But we have great discussions about key areas of interest – for me, it’s crisis management in particular, but other team mates are fascinated by risk or cyber security. So we share a lot of material when we come across it, especially if we think it will help each other to gain more knowledge. I’m lucky that most people are used to me going off on learning something new – the eternal learner as I was recently described.

Q: As a leader in resilience, what role do you see yourself playing in shaping the future of the field? Are there any emerging trends or areas of focus that you believe will be critical for organizations to address in the coming years?

Colm: Not sure I’m deserving of the ‘leadership’ badge yet, but I’m happiest having conversations with other practitioners, sharing thoughts and ideas (especially those outside my current experience scope) and sharing experiences or insights. I think that helps fosters understanding about different perspectives, different approaches, which only strengthens the resilience field. I love reading new and old material that can help inform with the current environments and challenges we face – Mitroff, Lagadec, Sheffi, Slovic etc. all spring to mind. Lots of great blogs and articles from brilliant practitioners that sometimes get lost in the noise – finding a real nugget of an article that you know will help someone who you’ve discussed with is a real energy booster for me. And vice versa if someone pushed me in the direction of some research or article that helps me. I think if that’s a role for the future, then sharing thoughts, research, experiences etc. is where I think I’ll have the greatest impact.

This is quite topical for me as it’s something I’m looking at for my dissertation.

I think Horizon Scanning and Strategic Foresight are two big areas for the future. There are some challenges with both but as concepts (and frameworks), I think they might play a big part in resilience. Overlay both concepts with scenario planning and business wargaming, I think you find organisations (if they invest and do them well) adopt and use these approaches to successfully navigate the continued turbulence they face.

Not forgetting AI either – it will be a game changer but I’d need more exposure to have a definitive answer as to ‘how’.

 

Q: What is the leadership playbook you are writing for yourself in real-time?

Colm: Be aligned to my values, continue to invest in my own personal / professional growth, stay true to myself (and that includes telling it how it is), and how to retire by 60 so I spend more time fishing!

 

Q: How do you apply the lessons of resilience in your own life?

Colm: After some recent self-reflection, it dawned on me that the fire that burns inside me is that of ‘protecting’. It stems from a traumatic childhood experience, where looking back, I became ‘protective’ from that point onwards, but also ‘resilient’. I think that spilt over into my career path – and I ended up in the field of ‘resilience’. Visualisation of anticipated situations, risk assessments, contingency actions all form part of my daily routine, at home and out and about. It’s interesting, that despite my friends (and my wife) not really understanding what I do, I’m the first port of call when situations arise in the media etc. and they want to know what’s going on and what the potential impact could be. That’s not to say I live my life in a bubble of resilience. I accept that bad things will happen (and do happen). It’s about how you deal with them and get back up. That’s my biggest resilience life lesson (as cliched as it sounds).