Another day, another high street chain in trouble


June 29th, 2018

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The list of high street chains in trouble seems to grow daily – Mothercare, House of Fraser, M&S, and (even) Waitrose have all recently announced store closures in a bid to restore or improve profitability. The retail sector is not the only one hitting the headlines because of poor performance and corporate crisis – international charities, rail companies, and internet giants have all featured prominently in the news in last few months.

Research has shown that in our globally connected, technology enabled, and warming world, the frequency and impact of high-risk events (such as financial crisis, corporate scandal, and extreme weather) is rapidly increasing[1]. In such an environment ‘organisational resilience’ is becoming a key strategic capability – 2015 research from the Economist Intelligence Unit[2] found nine out of 10 CEOs saw resilience as a priority for the business, and eight out of ten agreed it was indispensable for long-term growth.

Image of lighthouse representing the concept of resilienceBut what is it and how can organisations build it? The latter is a particularly important question given only one-third of CEOs in the same study were confident their organisation had resilience. Our recent research proposes the following working definition:

“Resilience is the capability of organisations to prevent and respond effectively to crises, and the ability to anticipate, adapt to, and take advantage of long-term trends, challenges, and opportunities. Put simply, resilience is about being change-ready and responding well to change. It requires organisations to be able to combine seemingly opposing capabilities, and emerges from the ‘how’ of the organisation – its culture.”

What do we mean by “opposing capabilities”? The ability to both plan and rehearse to minimise the impact of likely disruptions, and at the same time to quickly adapt when an unpredicted disruption strikes. The ability to standardise procedures to efficiently deal with market changes, and at the same time to flex procedures to rapidly create novel responses. And most fundamentally to both manage and embrace risk.

Our research highlighted four aspects of culture that are particularly important in building resilience:

  1. Purpose and values: do leaders frequently and consistently communicate and live-by the organisation’s values and purpose, in a way that can be practically translated by everyone so they are excited to answer “how does your job contribute to the organisation”?
  2. Learning organisation: do people have a chance to breathe at work, to reflect on their day’s work, to question processes and practices, to seek different views, and to challenge assumptions?
  3. Shared leadership: are leaders and managers empowered to make decisions as much as is practically possible, does no-one feel micro-managed, and does everyone takes responsibility for their actions?
  4. Relationships and social capital: do structures and processes work in a way that enable collaboration and networking, or are there silos, ‘them and us’ attitudes, and a climate of internal competition?

Our recent research paper  provides more details and some diagnostic questions to help you debate and assess these important aspects. Of course resilience is not the only capability that is important in our ever-changing world – however resilient they are large department stores may not survive as they are just too burdened by high rent, high rates, and consumers shopping online and in pop-up boutiques. But those that are more resilient, that are able to anticipate sooner and adapt more rapidly, are likely to better weather the storms of change.


Join the debate at the Business Uncertainty Conference hosted by Roffey Park and University of Sussex Business School on 7th September.


[1] Van Der Vegt, G. S., Essens, P., Wahlström, M., & George, G. (2015). Managing risk and resilience. Academy of Management Journal58(4), 971-980.

[2] Economist Intelligence Unit (2015). Organisational resilience: Building an enduring enterprise.