Transport resilience: gaining the ‘always-on’ advantage

In this article for NPC, Sara Ulrich, Resilience and Wargaming expert at PA Consulting,  considers some of the fascinating findings from a PA Consulting research report The always-on advantage, which explores how for many leading transport organisations disruption presents an opportunity to not just increase resilience, but to ensure it’s “always-on”; making resilience more than a continuity issue but a strategic driver for better ways of working, innovation and delivering value to stakeholders.

The past few years have seen multiple disruptive events arrive at once. And while any distant fallacy of perfectly sequenced and spaced moments of disruption is just that – a fallacy – it’s become increasingly evident that disruption today is increasing in intensity, frequency, and in the inter-relatedness of activity.

Some have termed this a permacrisis or polycrisis; others as ‘clustering’, and some simply see this as the ‘new normal’. What’s less common is to hear it termed as an opportunity. And yet, based on new PA Consulting research, The always-on advantage, that’s exactly what it is for many leading transport organisations: an opportunity to not just increase resilience, but to ensure it’s always-on rather than simply ‘activated’ when disruption hits.

From our survey of transport organisations across Europe (covering road, rail, aviation, and logistics), we found a cohort of organisations who see the ability for always-on resilience to keep them on track with their strategic objectives, maintain momentum in the aftermath of disruption, and even help drive innovation and continuous improvement.

Redefining resilience

According to our recent survey of 360 transport leaders across Europe, almost nine in ten leaders told us resilience is a strategic imperative. As well as climbing the board agenda, there’s evidence that resilience itself is being redefined. Eight in ten respondents told us that resilience now ‘means looking at everything we do, constantly tweaking as our organisation changes’.

Back when the NPC was formed in late 2020, Chair, Lord Toby Harris, invoked the scouting motto – the need to ‘be prepared’, and moving away from a ‘just in time’ philosophy to, ‘just in case’. And this view has caught on. It’s where resilience means being ready for what comes next rather than always responding. And this frees up the organisational headroom to move ahead of customer trends, experiment with new technology, and re-shape delivery models.

Today, resilience needs to be far broader than a set of operational plans for ensuring business continuity in the event of a major disruption. It needs to be at the centre of ensuring strategic continuity through the gathering storm of constant, concurrent, and disruptive events. In practice, this means resilience needs to be a permanent capability that extends across every part of the organisation.

Are transport organisations walking the talk?

We supplemented our survey with a score of in-depth conversations with transport leaders. What they say about resilience is broadly positive. Many of them now cite it as a top-level priority. But on closer inspection it is less reassuring; while many leaders talk about making resilience a strategic imperative, grand ambitions do not always translate into effective action.

For example, even with the long-tail impact of the Covid-19 pandemic still felt by many, and despite a near-horizon of disruptive events that are quickly gaining ground, over half of the leaders we surveyed say the worst has already happened. Meanwhile, another half say they still depend on ad-hoc development of resilience rather than taking a strategic approach. Finally, despite the threats from mounting disruptive events, 65% have no plans to increase investment in resilience.

More worryingly, one in four respondents told us that ‘more disruptive events’ are the number one accelerator of resilience as a strategic priority. In effect, many organisations are waiting for fresh disruption to reignite a sense of urgency. They are hooked on the disruption-response cycle, where discussions around resilience come as a secondary consideration, not as an embedded, always-on, and always-prepared approach.

What needs to change?

Rather than waiting for further disruption, transport organisations need to make resilience a sustained strategic priority, now. Leaders have a critical role to play in building this switched-on, fluid capability.

Our research identifies three steps that can transform the approach to resilience and help organisations not just prepare for, but anticipate and shape, the next waves of disruption. Those who are more prepared for disruption, and quickest to respond and recover, are those who can gain the tactical advantage: reassuring customers, gaining ground in new areas, and using the lessons to hone their offerings and services. Three key themes sit at the centre of this:

1. Embed a resilience mindset

Elevating resilience depends on how people at every level in the organisation respond when disruption strikes – from the board right through to operational and customer-facing staff. Without the right mindset, even the best laid plans will be rendered ineffective.

Driving change hangs on the skills and behaviours of leaders: setting the tone and creating the space to find ways to succeed when disruption occurs. First, leaders should look to ensure that resilience is a regular board agenda imperative – looking at the short, mid, and long-term disruption horizon. Then, look to adopt a model of leadership that empowers people to perform effectively during a disruptive event – freeing leaders to focus on leading. Finally, there’s a need to shift from finding comfort in the outcome, to finding comfort in the process – bringing the structured response that formalises resilience.

2. Train your resilience muscle

Always-on resilience demands superior flexibility across operations and processes. So it’s now more important than ever to root out the reasons for organisational sluggishness and design ways of operating that maximise resilience.

Respondents told us that the major barrier to resilience is the lack of workforce agility, which makes it difficult to respond to concurrent, overlapping events, or those that ebb and flow. Leaders can drive change looking for opportunities to cross-skill, and by creating a culture of psychological safety where people can adapt and improve through challenging and highlighting problems, errors, and near misses.

Wargaming exercises can help build muscle memory so that the response to disruption is instinctive and seamless. This type of training helps replace a culture of caution with one of courage, where people are alive to the responsibilities and realities of leading through an event.

Such training and adaptability will create the environment where people can commit to continuous improvement. To some extent, this is about reframing failure as part of a cycle of idea generation, planning, trials and – most critically – reflection. And then making these a springboard for further transformation and innovation.

3. Develop a resilient ecosystem

The transport ecosystem, with its complex, cross-modal links, presents a unique resilience challenge. Disruption spreads easily across modes – and even across national boundaries. Always-on resilience therefore calls for a shift in the nature of supplier relationships, better knowledge sharing, and global, multi-modal thinking about the best way to navigate challenges and create new opportunities.

Currently, more than one in three organisations lack confidence that their suppliers are resilient. This is the second biggest barrier to resilience behind lack of workforce agility. To uplift quality outside of their organisation, leaders can vet suppliers for resilience – as well as ensuring that suppliers stay close when reviewing their requirements or strategy.

Many transport leaders told us there is a shift towards increased collaboration and knowledge sharing, with many good dialogues and relationships built during the pandemic. Connected resilience will be particularly vital when it comes to longer-term shifts, such as the move to net-zero carbon and the clean energy transition.

At the next level up, more can be done to link up across transport ecosystems – regardless of mode, and at both the national and international level. In a world where customers want and expect seamless experiences; siloed-thinking and working is no longer enough. Government and regulators can drive progress here, but so too can transport leaders. Imagine the change that could come about through regular cross-modal, cross-border collaboration to openly engage and exchange ideas, share best practice, and encourage wider adoption of always-on resilience.

Ready for action?

Over the past years, transport leaders have learnt valuable lessons about resilience. They see its capacity to create opportunities to do things better and, with this, to drive competitive advantage. Now is the moment to seize those opportunities and redefine resilience.

This is the challenge and opportunity of the moment for transport leaders – and our report seeks to kick-start action, as well as providing an opportunity for leaders to build and share their views on a much-needed transport resilience agenda for change.