Stress Testing: Increasing Resilience in a Complex and Uncertain World

A resilient organisation is one that can fulfil its strategic aims, such as economic growth, developing competitive advantage or increasing profits, regardless of any adverse issues it faces either internally or externally. Such an organisation is seen to not only survive operational disruption or hostile market environments, but also succeeds in thriving despite them, writes Dr Sandra Bell.

Conventional risk management tools – such as root cause analysis, SWOT and probabilistic risk assessment – can be used to manage known or anticipated risks. However, more sophisticated approaches to risk management are needed to cope with the following scenarios: risks that we suspect are more likely to occur than historical observation suggests due to some underlying cause, extreme events that we can imagine, but that have never actually occurred to the best of our knowledge or situations where we cannot rule out that the complexity and uncertainty of the environment in which we operate will result in unexpected impacts or conditions.

Stress testing offers a way in which to identify and correct organisational vulnerabilities in a safe environment rather than learning the hard way through experience and suffering additional brand damage. Hindsight is always 20:20.

The term ‘stress test’ is used to refer to a range of techniques used to assess the vulnerability of an organisation to major environmental changes or to exceptional, but plausible events. The overriding objective is to make risks to the organisation more transparent by providing information about that organisation’s behaviour under such circumstances.

What the stress test looks like depends on what you’re trying to achieve. For example, you can construct a test that investigates a single risk to an organisation, such as the credit risk in a financial institution or supply risk in an energy company, or perhaps multiple risks such as all events that could disrupt business processes within a manufacturing business.

You can also probe a single risk factor in isolation (a sensitivity test) or a group of risk factors (a scenario analysis). Likewise, if you know the combination of factors that would cause the greatest damage you could deliberately stress this subset of factors and keep all others constant (maximum loss approach).

Finally, the test can be based on historical scenarios or hypothetical scenarios, constructed to take account of plausible changes in circumstances that have no historical precedent.

Creating the scenario is the hardest aspect of stress testing as it requires a significant amount of practical expertise and judgement to ensure that the correct risks and factors are identified, together with imagination and creativity to ensure that it’s relevant, believable and viable.

Using stress tests to future-proof policy

Resilient organisations are alive to the potential of significant changes in their environment and adjust their policies such that they remain optimised. One way in which they do this is by using stress tests.

For example, within the energy sector most organisations have carbon dioxide emission reduction policies designed to contribute to international efforts to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change. In most cases this involves an increase in the use of renewables such as wind and solar power.

However, while reducing emissions may avoid the worse case scenario, our climate is still changing and extreme weather events are becoming more severe and frequent, in turn impacting the reliability of energy supply from solar and wind that are highly dependent on the weather.

By using stress tests where the scenario reflects the outcome of the proposed policy (eg a world where 50% of energy comes from renewables), energy organisations such as the National Grid and Scottish Power have been able to test themselves against future weather scenarios. This has enabled them to identify that there are realistic future scenarios where energy supply will fail to meet demand and, rather than find out when it happens, implement contingency arrangements, such as sourcing energy from different countries and building resilience into the system to ensure that the lights stay on and we stay on track for a low carbon future.

Building relationships

There are three key ingredients to being able to thrive despite these market challenges and operational risks. First, businesses need to be adaptive, knowing when to change and optimising policy and operations according to the outside environment. Leadership is also crucial – with leaders instilling in people the will to succeed during challenging times.

The third and final area – and one which is frequently neglected by organisations – is their network. Forging and maintaining effective relationships with stakeholders, customers and suppliers is a key component not simply to being able to maintain successful operations, but also when it comes to maintaining a competitive advantage and achieving profit and growth.

Dr Sandra Bell

Dr Sandra Bell

Stress tests can also be used to probe relationships at a deeper level and identify whether the necessary confidence and mutual trust exists to allow co-operation under stress to take place. If not, concrete measures can be taken to build these vital components of an effective network. For example, even though the energy sector has ensured that it can maintain supply even with a low-carbon policy, balancing supply and demand in extreme weather situations, where supply is threatened and demand simultaneously increases, relies on a joint effort between the energy companies and their customers.

Organisations need to set long-term policies to achieve long-term aims. However, the world changes fast and it’s important to ensure that the ideas and plans written into policies and used as a basis for making decisions and guiding actions don’t have unintended consequences in the future.

As many an Army General has stated, no plan survives first contact with the enemy. Professional stress tests can be carried out through external organisations and will help businesses to optimise their risk management and increase their resilience. Resilience must work at all levels – executive, operations, technology – and designing and delivering stress tests is one such way in which resilience can be comprehensively assessed.

Dr Sandra Bell is Head of Resilience Consulting at Sungard Availability Services

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

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