• February 14, 2024

Three Key Practices for Creating Resilient Organizations

Three Key Practices for Creating Resilient Organizations

Three Key Practices for Creating Resilient Organizations 1024 536 Vantage Technology Consulting Group

Actionable strategies to help leaders define priorities, build capacity, and foster culture to develop resilience for a healthier organization.

This year’s EDUCAUSE Top 10 Issues were framed around the concept of resilience, where institutional resilience is defined as “the ability to anticipate, respond to, and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances in ways that maximize opportunities and minimize consequences of unforeseen events.”

In other words, when we are resilient, surprises don’t throw us off course, they help propel us forward.

Resilience is a core attribute of healthy organizations. It enables organizations – and the people within them – to learn, grow, and become stronger from challenges. Like organizational culture, we cannot take resilience for granted: no level of technical proficiency will deliver resiliency. Instead, leaders must be mindful of the needs of their organization in developing practices that cultivate both individual and organizational resilience. The most successful practices we’ve observed over the past decade are to: 1) identify your “big rocks” and 2) create capacity to 3) help foster a culture of resilience.

Understand Current Conditions

For years, IT departments across higher education have stated they have too many priorities and their project lists are growing faster than can be addressed. While this situation created stress for leaders and employees alike, it could usually (though not always) be managed with an acceptable level of tension. Every year for the past decade, the EDUCAUSE Top 10 Issues has listed budget challenges, cost reduction, increasing capacity for change, and organizational development as IT priorities. Not surprisingly, at the core of these issues is the struggle to maintain and grow service offerings in a challenging environment where higher education enrollment and funding has weakened.

Even with these workload challenges, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, higher education IT organizations sprang into action with a quick response to help our institutions adapt. IT organizations were acknowledged as critical for success and heroes for the work they accomplished. We took on new responsibilities and tasks, developed new processes, and identified new priorities. We rarely downgraded previous priorities or stopped doing previous tasks more than temporarily. We were cheerleaders, asking our teams to dig deep to find a well of energy to get us through this short emergency response. At many institutions, that sprint lasted for a few months to a year and then, when our teams and institutions were already exhausted, the response transitioned into a marathon.

During the pandemic, identifying priorities among exhausted college and university leaders seemed Sisyphean – everything was important. We continued doing everything we’d done before the pandemic, during the pandemic, and as we emerged from the pandemic. Years of responsibilities and tasks, accumulated like sediment in a river delta, have confused our stakeholders and our employees about our priorities and have encumbered our teams with tasks that may not be serving us. Even more problematic, this has contributed to a culture in which many employees and teams don’t feel empowered to question the status quo, to identify new ways of working, and to consider opportunities to build capacity by not doing some things.

Our heroic pandemic response also left our institutions with unrealistic expectations. During the pandemic, IT system upgrades, implementations, and process changes often took hours, days, and weeks instead of the months and years to which we were previously accustomed. What was hidden in the quickly deployed changes were the steps we necessarily skipped along the way, all of which are still required, including documentation, maintenance, and support. This created a lot of clean-up work still being completed now, in some cases years later.

Many long-term institutional challenges were magnified and accelerated by the pandemic, creating a perfect storm that has left many IT shops struggling with a mountain of operational tasks and mounting priorities. In this environment, survival is often the goal and leaders are naturally planning for only the next few months.

How do we evolve from these current conditions to develop resilience for a healthier organization?

Identify Your Big Rocks

In his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey popularized the concept of Big Rocks with a simple demonstration. A jar in this example represents available time or resources. If you fill the jar with gravel, it appears full until you find that you can pour sand in, filling empty spaces. Again, the jar now appears full, until you pour water in. Many IT shops are like the jar that is full of gravel, sand, and water (the services and tasks that comprise our operations). This creates a real problem when your institution asks you to take on a major initiative or place a big rock in the jar.

In this scenario, many leaders are tempted to push back or explain how they are “full up” and just can’t take on any more projects, much less a major initiative. This type of response is usually met with a response something along the lines of, “just figure it out,” sometimes with the reminder, “you did this for us when COVID began!”

A more proactive approach is to consider the “big rocks” that are on the way in the future, keeping these priorities at the forefront of our planning and conversations about capacity and priorities. When it’s necessary, how do you create capacity to meet institutional goals and “just figure it out?”

Read more about big rocks, including some strategies for identifying and tackling them.

Create Organizational Capacity

Agility – the ability to move quickly, whether proactive or reactive – is a characteristic of a healthy, resilient organization. Agility is only feasible when organizations have sufficient capacity. Unhealthy organizations are stretched thin, such that unexpected challenges may quickly stress under-resourced services, processes, and employees to a breaking point. When your institution hands you a new “big rock,” you have to know what sand and gravel to remove from your jar to make space and grow your organization’s capacity to respond.

One method to grow organizational capacity is to implement the 25% plan. In this exercise, staff members categorize their tasks and identify time estimates for each category. Next, they rank those categories and related tasks according to value to the institution and overall efficiency. Within each team (or related groups of teams) we evaluate the lowest-ranked tasks for value or efficiency to identify opportunities to reconfigure services, revise processes, deliver services differently, or simply discontinue services. Overall, we are seeking to regain roughly 25% of an individual’s or team’s capacity through identified opportunities. When leaders conduct the 25% plan exercise, it is essential to follow through on opportunities identified to build both capacity and trust.

We have heard from clients that the 25% exercise can shift perspectives on work, helping team members feel comfortable evaluating services and processes to identify opportunities for improvement that they previously took for granted as static. Moreover, once you begin realizing process improvements and capacity gains in one area, others become interested and enthusiasm for the process and its outcomes grows.

“Automating one process in the 25% plan got other teams curious; it exposed the work and now others are coming on board and getting exposure to automation and AI tools… Getting results from the 25% plan is helping people to change the way they do their job.” – Ashlea Anderson, CIO, Georgia Southern University

Another route to generating capacity is reserving the capacity that you already have. Information technology organizations are commonly perceived as offices of “no” – places where customers eventually stop asking for help or innovation because they’re often met with a negative response. It’s logical to want to combat that perception, but the reality is that your organization cannot do everything. It is essential that you develop the ability to say no (or something like it) while reinforcing organizational priorities and maintaining healthy relationships with your peers. Leveraging IT governance and seeking input from stakeholders in defining, prioritizing, and communicating your “big rocks” will help you have these conversations with other institutional leaders.

Foster the Culture You Want

Like resilience, culture can’t be taken for granted. Organizations with strong, healthy, and resilient cultures have higher employee engagement than their counterparts, and organizational culture is a key factor in employee recruitment and retention.

Identifying and clearly (and regularly) communicating your big rocks helps clarify your top priorities for the organization. It also helps teams and individual employees align their efforts with those of the organization. Once your team understands what those big rocks are, and what they should be anticipating in their own future work, they can begin evaluating their processes and services to filter out the sand – the lower value or less efficient work that can be done differently (or not at all) to create capacity for big rocks. This also helps individuals understand how their work contributes to the mission of the institution as well as how their work aligns with their personal values, an increasingly important driver for employee satisfaction and engagement.

Empowering individuals to identify opportunities for building capacity – particularly by identifying responsibilities, services, or tasks to deprecate, automate, or otherwise modify – gives every employee incentive to think creatively about their roles and how they might be more efficient. It also helps your leaders source additional perspectives and suggestions for organizational priorities, particularly when your employees have a closer understanding of your customers’ wants, needs, and pain points.

Frequently communicating your big rocks to your teams not only helps everyone in the organization understand your priorities, it also helps them understand when to say “no,” and you should help them do it. For instance, instead of an immediate “no” to a suggestion that doesn’t align with organizational priorities, staff members can learn to say “yes, this is important, and we can explore it further after this next ‘big rock’ is complete.” We must be able to engage in these versions of “not right now” within our organizations as well as with our stakeholders and customers, at every level of the organization, to maintain alignment and clarity of focus on our big rocks.


Each of these capabilities relies on a foundation of psychological trust and safety. Each also requires that you – as an organizational leader – frequently, clearly, and consistently articulate why that capability is important to you, and to illustrate its significance in your everyday actions. Identify your organization’s big rocks and discuss them at least quarterly with your teams. Seek input from team members about what the organization can do differently, or stop doing altogether, and then act on those suggestions. Develop leaders and staff members to value open conversation and a critical lens on even our most standard processes and services.

Need Help?

Our team of experts is available to help you develop a resilient organization through organizational assessments, strategic planning, and capacity building exercises.

This post was co-authored by Vice President Kirk Kelly and Director of Strategic Team Operations Shannon Dunn, who advise clients on strategic planning; CIO executive advisory services; IT and data governance; educational and classroom technologies; and initiatives that transform institutional academic and administrative capabilities.