Interview with Associate Dean Kathleen Sutcliffe on Her New Organizational Resilience Teaching Materials

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 Kathleen Sutcliffe is the Associate Dean for Faculty Development and Research at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. In addition to her administrative duties, she is both the Gilbert and Ruth Whitaker Professor of Business Administration and Professor of Management and Organizations. Professor Sutcliffe’s research is devoted to understanding the fundamental mechanisms of organizational adaptation, reliability, and resilience.

Professor Sutcliffe has recently written a conceptual note and complementary case study on the topic of organizational resilience. Organizational resilience is defined as the maintenance of positive adjustment under challenging conditions such that the organization emerges from those conditions strengthened and more resourceful.

In this new case study, Courtney Wilson, the new director of Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad Museum, is tasked with developing a turnaround plan for the museum after years of underperformance.  However, Wilson’s plans are brought to a halt when a snow storm destroys the museum’s roof and most of its collection. This case study explores how Wilson and his management team must deal with the crisis and the steps they must take to move the museum forward.

We recently sat down with Professor Sutcliffe to discuss her conceptual note and her case study.

Question: What sparked your interest in developing a conceptual note and complementary case study on the topic of organizational resilience?

Professor Sutcliffe: What fascinates me most about this topic is that it is an essential part of everyday life. It is important to realize that individuals not only experience setbacks, but leaders and organizations do as well. Each of us faces uncertainties on a daily basis. Taking the time to study this topic, in my opinion, is critical for anyone’s future success.

In the realm of organizations, it was once believed that companies could be designed or programmed to anticipate and predict future outcomes. While this way of thinking has largely been dispelled, organizations have been constantly learning how to effectively manage risk by becoming more resilient. By doing so, businesses are able to recover more quickly, which is why this area is receiving significant attention today.

Question: The B&O Railroad case is about the challenges a leader faces in light of a catastrophic event. Though they may not face a catastrophic event, all managers are constantly put to the test. What can managers do on a day-to-day basis to better prepare themselves and their organizations to handle difficult circumstances?

Professor Sutcliffe: If you read this case, it is important to understand the state of the B&O museum when Wilson takes over as Director: it is a sleepy, stodgy organization that has been running deficits for several years. Courtney Wilson knows that and decides to shake things up. More importantly, he knows he has to increase the museum’s revenues and visibility. Consequently, he decides to undertake a large new event to celebrate the 175th anniversary of American railroading: The Fair of the Iron Horse.

This decision put a great deal of stress on the organization, which forced it to make modifications to the staff, structure, design, as well as strategy. Yet, in the context of doing this, the museum increased its resiliency on a number of levels. Although the museum’s staff was largely unaware of a set of strengths and capabilities that they had developed until much later, the fact that they had been stretched through this process proved to be a valuable preemptive test of resilience.

If I were to give advice to managers in terms of how to prepare for unexpected events, I would tell them to keep their organizations in motion. When a business is stagnant it can become paralyzed by unforeseen events. As a simple analogy, you can think about this idea in terms of mental capacity as one ages. We now know from neuroscientists that the brain’s capacity to change—its plasticity—is lifelong. But we also have to work on it. As we grow older, if we are constantly thinking in new ways and learning new things, we will ultimately be sharper and more enduring than someone fixed in their ways. Similarly, to create a resilient organization, managers need to constantly pay attention to creating opportunities for continuous new learning a nd mental rejuventation. Businesses should also encourage appropriate risk taking, continuously monitor and improve their processes, and maintain flexible decision making. Each of these activities contributes to organizational resiliency.

Question: What advice do you have for faculty members who are interested in teaching organizational resilience through the B&O Railroad case?

Professor Sutcliffe: While a faculty member can easily use this case to teach crisis management, I believe that this case-study is better suited for thinking about how to create a more resilient organization. This case explains the importance of keeping your organization in motion, as well as how to foster growth opportunities for individuals within the company. It also provides insight into how our current capabilities to respond to problems (our response repertoires) influence our abilities to recognize problems in the making.

When people have a broad response repertoire they are more likely to recognize problems because they have some way to deal with it. Thus problems are caught when they are small before they become a full-blown crisis. When a problem is early within its life-cycle, there are a greater number of solutions, which makes it easier to fix the problem. Later on when a problem is bigger, solutions shrink. It is through these areas of interest that a faculty member can use this case to teach organizational resilience.