09/06/2014 11:00 BST | Updated 08/08/2014 06:59 BST

Boxing Clever for Resilience

It's a truism that moving house is a stressful life event and it's something I can attest to for myself. Having lived in the same urban property for over 20 years, I have just upped sticks with my family for a new rural location. I'm not a big fan of moving, but even I've been surprised by the disruption it's brought. I guess I'd anticipated the chaos in the house but I'd totally underestimated the challenges we'd face sorting basics such as childcare and shopping, while my wife starts a new job and I continue with mine. Candidly neither of us has been at our best at times, which got me asking myself how resilient I am. And by this I meant my ability to roll with the punches and maintain my equanimity. But the more I wondered about this, the more I began to ponder if this was really what others understood resilience to mean.

What's certain is that the term is enjoying significant currency in organisational management and professional development circles; in fact resilience, which has long been a hot topic in systems thinking and sustainable development circles, seems to be following sustainability's own rise to mainstream prominence. And just like sustainability, resilience is a contested concept. Professor David Alexander of UCL's Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction has traced the history of resilience from classical to contemporary times, finding definitions as varied and contrasting as:

  • to recoil
  • to avoid
  • to shrink
  • to rebound
  • to leap
  • to persist.
  • to absorb disturbance

I have exhibited most of these during this fortnight of domestic mayhem, but I have not experienced them in the same way and neither have they made the same impression on those around me!

There's a temptation to cut through this uncertainty and nail a definitive interpretation for resilience. But that would do a disservice to the concept: the very value of resilience lies in its complexity. So while it is safe to think of "persistence" or "optimism" as discrete qualities, resilience is perhaps better viewed as a process or mode of operating made possible by timely and appropriate selection from a suite of behaviours.

In general I'm about as fond of boxing as I am of packing and unpacking boxes. But if you were seeking an example of what resilience might look like in action, you could do worse than watch Muhammed Ali at his peak. Ali, of course, famously spoke of his capacity to "float like a butterfly and sting like a bee," and there's no denying his ability to meld grace with power. This is evident in his capacity for drawing himself in on the ropes, bobbing and weaving, ducking and diving, launching explosive counter attacks, and for mesmerizing and baffling his opponents with his feints and shuffles. In effect Ali is recoiling, avoiding, shrinking, rebounding and leaping, all of which feature in Professor Alexander's list. And Ali is persistent too, but not in the sense that he is prepared to stand there and just soak up the punches. His persistence lies in his total attention to the moment and his constant adaptation to the actions of his adversary, all of which enables him to absorb disturbance. It is his focus, adaptability, and the quality of the techniques from which he can select that make him so resilient.

So how do we develop personal and organisational resilience? Well for Brian Walker of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, it's a case of acting outside of normal comfort zones. As a systems thinking theorist, Walker equates the moment at which resilience collapses with the point at which one system becomes another. The way to build up and maintain any system's resilience is by "disturbing and probing the boundaries of (that system's) resilience."

I'm all for stretch and creative disruption, but right now, struggling with the nuts and bolts of Ikea and the logistics of school drop offs and distant food shops, I feel the urge for respite. Maybe instead of pushing at the boundaries, I need to nurture my resilience by giving myself a break. Like Ali I should recoil from the action, review the situation, even have a little dance, before springing back into action with refreshed vigour and determination. Knowing how to blend these reactions and doing it well can be more valuable to getting through than simply trying to slug it out.

I wish I could remember which box we packed the teapot in.