By Iqbal Thokan
Adapt or die. “It is not the strongest of the species (business) that survives, nor the most intelligent (resourceful) that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change”. (Charles Darwin).
While I don’t completely agree with all of Darwin’s theory, I do strongly believe that we need to be adaptable and flexible to our approach of how we conduct our business, especially given our circumstances today. COVID19 has not just brought about change, but it has brought rapid change and the world is going to evolve in a way like we haven’t seen in a very long time. History has given us many lessons and Darwin’s statement stands true, now more than ever.
A lot of the time we find ourselves stuck in the rut of routine and doing things in a particular way even when the signs are right there in front of us. And the question is why? While I am no expert in human behaviour, having worked with many business owners over the last 10 years, I found that most of the time it is due to the attachment we have of what was, and for any business this can be detrimental. A phenomenon especially seen in family owned businesses where there is a reluctance to change and handover.
Rapid changes like COVID19, is usually a double-edged sword, bringing with it many threats, but also many opportunities. For businesses all it takes is usually a slight change in the way we view the threat in order for us to see the opportunity. Opportunities are not that difficult to find, but mostly they reside behind some obstacle and hurdle. One of the easiest opportunities to find in any crisis, is to be able to adapt and do things better than what our competitors can do and this can allow us to make great progress. Adapting is not impossible but it can be very difficult and challenging especially if we not in the right mindset. And it all begins with positivity.
A business has to be viewed as a single enterprise, like a human body, that houses many systems that need to work together for the good of the whole. A positive mindset can lead to a healthy system, but this system needs to be able to function in a way where it is able to adapt to new conditions or it will suffer dire consequences. A simple example would be if we went for a holiday to a place where the weather conditions were not what we were normally accustomed to, without adapting we would suffer or be miserable, and the beauty of the human body is that it is capable of adapting as long as we have the right mindset. Likewise, within a business our systems and the way we operate need to allow for flexibility in order for us to stay relevant, survive and thrive. All of this is of course is dependent on two factors, the timely input of accurate information as well as the creative use of the available resources we have. One of the things as business, we can start doing now to see how flexible we are, is to start taking stock of all the resources we have available to us while at the same time, absorbing the right information of what is going on around our industry as well as our target market. Using the information we get, along with all the available resources we have, identify possibilities of how to adapt within the given situation. Scenario planning is the term usually used but I like to think of it as planning for possibilities.
COVID19 has turned things on its head, from the way we operate externally (marketing & sales), to the way we operate internally (the workforce and operations) and as business owners we need to realise this now, before it’s too late.
A story that comes to mind, is that of BlackBerry. During the late 2000’s BlackBerry had positioned itself well within the market especially amongst corporate companies. Those who used the device became advocates of it and loved that the operating system ran on its own closed network and it was fast, secure and reliable and this allowed BlackBerry to dominate the market at that point. However, they had one slight problem, the world was changing around them and the iPhone brought in an era where people were looking for devices that were an extension of who they were as individuals rather than following the norm of everyone looking and feeling the same. BlackBerry was heavily reliant on companies getting their employees to latch on their device, however, companies started realising that individuality is what their employees wanted and they allowed them to start using their own devices on the company network.
This broke the lock that BlackBerry had on the corporate world and changed the game for Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian company that owned and produced the BlackBerry. Two of the biggest shifts in the market that RIM chose to ignore was the need to adapt their device to the change in the wireless networks, which at that time was the 4G network and the second aspect was ignoring the popularity of the iPhones touch screen as they continued to stick with their keyboard.
By the time they decided to adapt to the market needs, it was too late, as their competitors had already laid a strong foundation within the market. Adaptability drives evolution and as business owners we need to monitor and be wary of the changes that are taking place around us and adapt before it’s too late. Don’t take the small step for granted, even a small step towards adapting is a step in the right direction.
Iqbal Thokan is an experienced business management consultant and the founder and co-owner of breedingpositivity.com
Dinosaurs are an apt and widely used metaphor today. After all, if a firm can’t or won’t adapt, it’s straight to the dustbin of business oblivion. A business enterprise is not totally dissimilar from a dinosaur, ignore rapidly changing circumstances, and a leader authors his or her company’s demise. Adapt to rapid changes better than your competitors and you’ll make great strides. Outlining suggestions that will help managers adapt to today’s volatile, fast-paced environment, the author quotes no less a change authority than Charles Darwin to illustrate what the real imperative is for a business leader today. “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”
Enterprises that do not adapt are in for a lot of trouble. The problem is change: The more rapid the pace of change, the more dire the consequences of stubbornly sticking to old ways.
Today’s pace of change in business conditions may or may not be unprecedented, but it is surely spectacular. Executives should expect that it will accelerate from here. But like most things in business, rapid change is a two-edged sword—a threat but also an opportunity. Adapt to rapid change better than competitors and you can make great strides; ignore rapidly changing circumstances and expect to go the way of the dinosaur. Adapting may be difficult, but it is not impossible.
The dinosaur metaphor is apt. Sixty million years ago, dinosaurs suddenly disappeared after more than 100 million years on the planet. Paleontologists hotly debate the cause of the dinosaur’s extinction, but high on the list of hypotheses is their failure to adapt to rapidly changing climatic—particularly temperature—conditions.
If a failure to adapt was the dinosaur’s Achilles heel, then the dinosaur is not alone in the history of evolution. In his landmark 1859 book, The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin showed that those species that adapt best to their changing environment have the best chance of surviving, while those who do not adapt do not make it. Since heredity makes children resemble parents, in time, a surviving species will have the characteristics of its most adaptable members. To quote Darwin: “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” If executives ever wondered if there was a quote worth framing, this is it.
Substitute a business enterprise for the species and you have powerful advice for executives facing changing business conditions. The Origin of Species revolutionized not only biology, but in time, how we think about every form of organization and change. Religion, for example, would never be the same again. The Origin of Species is justly regarded as the epitome of influential scholarly achievement of the last 200 years. Executives should turn its pages. Darwin, like so many of the great thinkers, has much to tell those responsible for running business enterprises. (Darwin’s story is inspirational for would-be executives off to a slow start. As a young man, Darwin’s father deemed him doomed to a life of disgrace to himself and his family. That we should all be such a disgrace!)
The business/biology reference is useful, as there are many similarities. A business enterprise and a living organism both house complex systems whose myriad parts must work together for the good of the whole. Both can be brought down by the failure of a single part; both are critically dependent on the timely communication of accurate information between the parts; both are vulnerable to stress, overwork, aging, neglect and disease; both must defend against an often hostile and capricious environment; both perform well only when they get the proper inputs, and both evolve over time. Finally, for both, failure to adapt can be lethal.
Change puts a premium on adapting; the faster the pace of change, the greater the premium. Take away change and there is no need to adapt; if it worked yesterday, there is every reason to believe it will work today. Alas, that is not remotely what executives are now facing. Today’s business conditions give new meaning to the words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “All is flux, nothing stays still—there is nothing permanent except change.”
Driving the pace of change in business conditions is a revolution in technology that leaves no aspect of an enterprise—from the workplace to marketing—unaffected. We are living in our very own industrial revolution that is every bit a match for what Great Britain went through in the late 18th century. Innovation then gave rise to steam engines, power looms, spinning jennies, flying shuttles, canals, the factory system, mass production, paper money, stock and bond markets, and the corporation as the modern business organization. Today, innovation drives developments in microelectronics, optical fibre, the Internet, wireless communication, genetic engineering, space-age materials, lasers, electronic money and payments, empowerment, just-in-time inventory systems and joint venturing. The way in which business is done is turning upside down overnight; wise executives will run their enterprises as if the real excitement is still to come. Stay put too long and watch your enterprise become a horse and buggy, slide rule, vinyl record or mechanical watch. Each in its day dominated; each was abruptly done in by technology.
Technologies that change businesses are a big part of the great change locomotive hurtling towards every enterprise, but they are not the end of it. So rapidly is the economy itself changing that it has acquired a moniker: the New Economy. In the New Economy, everything changes faster: demand, supply, product prices, employment, production, investment, inventories, interest rates and exchange rates. In one quarter the economy is booming; the next quarter it is on the brink of recession and requiring massive Federal Reserve interest rate cuts. Sound familiar! The frequency with which economists adjust their forecasts attests to just how fast things are changing and how difficult it is to be right.
Finance, trade, politics and society complete the change whirlwind. A blizzard of new securities and portfolio strategies have combined with 24-hour-a day, worldwide trading and instantaneous information to make financial markets more efficient and much quicker to adjust, but also more volatile and more focused on the short term. Global trade growth is breathtaking, trade rules are steadily easing, countries are opening up in exchange for reciprocal access, international alliances abound, transportation costs are coming down, and everyone in a global industry is everyone else’s competitor. In politics, anything is possible: Free market/private ownership principles are increasingly popular; the Soviet Union no longer exists; 11 European countries that have often been on opposite sides in major wars now use the same money, and the European Union is poised to push east for new members. Societal change leaves nothing sacred; Customs, rules, standards and habits—from wearing a tie at work to the traditional marriage—are being broken.
Change and adapting to it should clearly be on every executive’s front burner. There is no litmus test for adaptability problems, but there are certainly signs that an enterprise is having trouble responding to its changing environment. A “Yes” answer to a number of the following questions suggests adapting to change should be more prominent on an enterprise’s agenda: Is the enterprise a follower rather than a leader? Is the enterprise continually surprised by events and developments that materially affect its capacity to compete and perform? Relative to competitors, is the enterprise usually late to embrace helpful new technologies, procedures and systems? Do the enterprise’s products usually lag the competition and the market? Is the enterprise’s market share in decline? Are competitors faster to exploit changing business conditions? Does the enterprise lack distinctive competencies, areas of excellence and market niches? Is the enterprise’s image tired and dated? Is adapting to change something that is rarely talked about? Do executives give the ability to adapt short shrift? Does the enterprise have trouble hiring and/or keeping strong, well-trained, highly motivated executives? Do office politics and processes take precedence over performance in promotion and other personnel decisions? Does the enterprise feel that everything is just fine, thank you very much?
Effectively adapting to rapid change must be a relentless, day-to-day activity. Searching for the magic bullet that will make all well immediately is a distracting waste of resources. Adapting is a game of singles, not home runs. Executives should move on a number of fronts.
1. FORCE THE PACE OF ADAPTING
Firms must be proactive in adapting; it will not happen if executives do not make it happen. Snoozing your way to complacency is not a recipe for a competitive, high-performance enterprise. Adapting involves change, and most people resist change as if it were a plague. Put adapting at the top of the agenda. Harp on it. The need to adapt is one message that can and should become a broken record.
2. RESIST DENIAL
Denial is a psychological state where the afflicted refuse to accept a harsh reality. The belief that all will be well in the enterprise if you just give it time is a sure sign of denial. Another sure sign is the belief that business conditions have not changed, or at least have not changed enough to matter. Denial is recognized as a necessary stage in grieving the loss of a loved one. It has no place in the running of an enterprise.
3. UNDERSTAND BUSINESS CONDITIONS
Only luck will save those whose efforts to adapt are based on a misread of the business environment. Adapting to conditions that do not exist is not much different than sticking to the status quo in the face of obvious change. Adapting effectively always begins with a sound reading of where business conditions are headed. Time that executives spend understanding trends in demographics, technology, economics, finance, trade, politics and society is time well spent. Since not all enterprises are affected by the same business conditions in the same way, it is also important to know just what business conditions matter most to your enterprise. Future business conditions are never certain, but study and good advice can increase the odds of getting the future right.
4. MANAGE FINANCES PRUDENTLY
Adapting effectively to rapid change takes serious money. Enterprises with weak balance sheets and/or a bad profile in the investment community will find money both expensive and difficult to get. Adapting is unlikely to work if it is built on a foundation of excessive debt and poorly matched assets and liabilities with respect to maturities and currencies. Those who consider adapting effectively costly should consider the cost of adapting poorly.
5. BENCHMARK RELENTLESSLY
If your enterprise is losing ground in product, quality, service, image, customer satisfaction, unit cost and profitability comparisons with competitors, it may mean that they are adapting better. Benchmarking can be hard on the ego, but it is one of the best and earliest indicators of trouble in adapting.
6. WATCH FOR AND DEAL WITH EXECUTIVE BURNOUT
The best antidote for rapid change is competence, focus and energy in the executive suite; the tired, cynical and stubborn can do huge damage fast. Dealing fairly with spent executives is expensive, but those costs pale beside the costs of letting burned-out executives pilot the ship through rapid change. Executives approaching the 10-year period in the same job especially should be monitored. Signs that an executive may not be far from the end include defensiveness, irritability, bitterness, inflexibility, listlessness, boredom, procrastination and fatigue.
7. RESTRUCTURE TO ADAPT
Alfred P. Sloan, the legendary architect of General Motors, argued that strategy followed structure. Sound strategy, and by extension sound execution and performance, is unlikely to flow from a badly designed organization. The faster the pace of change, the more important it is to continually monitor and upgrade structure. In times of rapid change, be especially sensitive to structures that stifle initiative and innovation, frustrate communication and reward process over performance and output. Enterprises ignore structure at their peril; the trouble is, structure is easy to ignore because a poor structure is not as obvious in an immediate crisis.
8. MANAGE THE ENTERPRISE’S RISK AGENDA
The faster the pace of change, the more important it is to manage risk. Change increases risk, often exponentially. Managing risk begins with understanding the exposures. You cannot mitigate risks that you do not understand.
9. ETHICS AND GOVERNANCE ALWAYS MATTER
Rapid change exposes dubious ethics and poor governance. Rapid change creates urgency and pressure; enterprises that are not properly grounded struggle accordingly.
10. DO NOT MINIMIZE THE IMPORTANCE OF A SMALL STEP
There is an adage in baseball that says that when rebuilding or reorganizing, a step in the right direction is far more important than one big step. The adage applies equally to business during periods of rapid change. It does not take many small steps to leave an enterprise substantially better adapted if the steps are all in the right direction. Over time, a small step in the wrong direction will be magnified many times.
11. LOOK FOR OPPORTUNITY
For the organization that is well managed, well financed, responsive and nimble, rapid change is just what the doctor ordered. Opportunities abound. The status quo makes it tough for the new or the small to take on the established. Rapid change puts everything up for grabs.
When the business history of this era is written many decades hence, there is a good chance that adaptability will be the characteristic that ultimately most distinguishes successful from unsuccessful enterprises. Enterprises should assess their capacity to adapt; where it is wanting, they should take immediate and aggressive action. A leisurely approach to change will not work in this business environment. The edge lies with those who see change more as an opportunity and challenge than a threat. When the psychologist Carl Gustaf Jung talked about the “thousands of years of struggle for adaptation and existence,” he was talking about humanity. However, he could have been talking about business. If you do not adapt, you will cease to exist. The only question is when. It is that simple!
The last word on this important subject goes to the great poet, Robert Service:
This is the law of the Yukon;
That only the strong shall thrive;
That surely the weak shall perish;
And only the fit survive.
(The Law of the Yukon)
Directing attention where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership. Below, Daniel Goleman considers how leadership hinges on capturing and directing the collective attention, and argues that new strategy means reorienting from business as usual to a fresh focus.
How Leaders Direct Attention
“Death by PowerPoint” refers to those endless, meandering presentations that the software seems to encourage. Those presentations can be painful when they reflect a lack of focused thinking, and a poor sense of what matters. One sign of the ability to pinpoint what’s salient is how someone answers the simple question, What’s your main point?
Directing attention where it needs to go is a primal task of leadership. Talent here lies in the ability to shift attention to the right place at the right time, sensing trends and emerging realities and seizing opportunities. But it’s not just the focus of a single strategic decision-maker that makes or breaks a company: it’s the entire array of attention bandwidth and dexterity among everyone.
Sheer numbers of people make an organization’s cumulative attention far more distributable than an individual’s, with a division of labor in who pays attention to what. This multiple focus powers an organization’s attention capacity for reading and responding to complex systems.
Attention in organizations, as with individuals, has a limited capacity. Organizations, too, have to choose where to allocate attention, focusing on this, while ignoring that. An organization’s core functions—finance, marketing, human resources, and the like—describe how a particular group focuses.
Signs of what might be called organizational “attention deficit disorder” include making flawed decisions because of missing data, no time for reflection, trouble getting attention in the marketplace, and inability to focus when and where it matters.
Leadership itself hinges on effectively capturing and directing the collective attention. Leading attention requires these elements: first, focusing your own attention, then attracting and directing attention from others, and getting and keeping the attention of employees and peers, of customers or clients.
A well-focused leader can balance an inner focus on the climate and culture with other focus on the competitive landscape, and an outer focus on the larger realities that shape the environment the outfit operates in.
A leader’s field of attention—that is, the particular issues and goals she focuses on—guides the attention of those who follow her, whether or not the leader explicitly articulates them. People make their choices about where to focus based on their perception of what matters to leaders. This ripple effect gives leaders an extra load of responsibility: they are guiding not just their own attention, but to a large extent, everyone else’s.
Take, as a case in point, strategy. An organization’s strategy represents the desired pattern of organizational attention, on which everyone should share a degree of focus, each in their particular way. A given strategy makes choices about what to ignore and what matters: Market share or profit? Current competitors or potential ones? Which new technologies? When leaders choose strategy, they are guiding attention.
Where Does Strategy Come From?
When Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, after having been ousted in 1984, he found a company with a sea of products— computers, peripheral products for computers, twelve different types of Macintosh. The company was floundering. His strategy was simple: focus.
Instead of dozens of products, they would concentrate on just four: one computer and one laptop each for two markets, consumer and professional. Just as in his Zen practice, where recognizing you’ve become distracted helps you concentrate, he saw that “[d] eciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.”
Jobs was relentless in filtering out what he considered irrelevancies, both personally and in his own life. But he knew that in order to simplify effectively you need to understand the complexity that you are reducing. A single decision to simplify, like Jobs’s dictum that Apple products allow a user to do anything in three clicks or less, demanded a deep understanding of the function of the commands and buttons being given up, and finding elegant alternatives.
The original meaning of strategy was from the battlefield; it meant “the art of the leader”—back then, generals. Strategy was how you deployed your resources; tactics were how battles were fought. Today, leaders need to generate strategies that make sense in whatever larger systems they operate in—a task for outer focus.
A new strategy means reorienting from what’s now business as usual to a fresh focus. Coming up with a radically innovative strategy demands perceiving a novel position, one your competitors do not see. Winning tactics are available to everyone, yet are overlooked by all but a few.
Armies of consultants offer elaborate analytic tools for fine- tuning a strategy. But they stop cold when it comes to answering the big question: Where does a winning strategy come from in the first place? A classic article on strategy makes this offhand remark and leaves it at that: to find winning strategies “requires creativity and insight.”
Those two ingredients take both inner and outer focus. When Marc Benioff, founder and CEO of Salesforce, first realized the potential for cloud computing, he was monitoring the evolution of a system-changing technology—an outer focus—along with his own gut sense of how a company offering such services would do. Salesforce uses the cloud to help companies manage their customer relationships, and it staked out an early position in this competitive space.
The best leaders have systems awareness, helping them answer the constant query, ‘Where should we head and how?’ The self-mastery and social skills built on self and other focus combine to build the emotional intelligence that drives the human engine needed to get there. A leader needs to check a potential strategic choice against everything she knows. And once the strategic choice gets made, it needs to be communicated with passion and skill, drawing on cognitive and emotional empathy. But those personal skills alone will flounder if they lack strategic wisdom.
The Telling Detail On the Horizon
By the mid-2000s, the BlackBerry had become the darling of corporate IT. Companies loved that the system ran on its own closed network, reliable, fast, and secure. They handed them out to employees by the thousands, and the word crackberry (for the addiction of users to their BlackBerrys) entered the lexicon. The company rose to market dominance on four key strengths: ease of typing, excellent security, long battery life, and wireless data compression.
For a time the BlackBerry was a winning technology, changing the rules of the game by displacing competitors (in this case, some functions of PCs and laptops, and, entirely, that era’s mobile phones). But even as BlackBerrys dominated the corporate market and were fast becoming a consumer fad, the world was changing. The iPhone ushered in an epoch where more and more workers bought their own brands of smartphones—not necessarily BlackBerrys—and companies adapted by letting employees bring their devices to the company network. Suddenly BlackBerry’s lock on the corporate market evaporated, as they had to compete with everyone else.
Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian-based maker of the BlackBerry, was slow to catch up. When they introduced a touch-screen, for example, it was no match for those long on the market. BlackBerry’s closed network, once an asset, became a liability in a world where phones themselves—the iPhone, and those based on the Android operating system—had become platforms for their own worlds of apps.
RIM was run by co-CEOs who were both engineers, and the brand’s initial success was built on superior engineering. After RIM’s co-CEOs were forced out by their board, the company announced it would once again focus on companies as their prime market, even though most of its growth had come on the consumer side.
As Thorsten Heins, the new RIM CEO, put it, the company had missed major paradigm shifts in its ecological niche. They had ignored the move in the United States to fourth-generation (4G) wireless networks, failing to build devices for it even as their competitors seized that market. They underestimated how popular the iPhone’s touchscreen would become and stuck to their keyboard.
“If you have a great touch interface, people are actually willing to sacrifice battery life,” Heins says. “We thought that wouldn’t happen. Same thing with security,” as companies changed their standards to allow workers to join corporate networks with their own smartphones.
While once the BlackBerry brand had seemed revolutionary, now, as one analyst put it, they “seemed clueless about what customers wanted.”
Though it continued to lead in markets like Indonesia, just five years after the BlackBerry dominated the American market RIM had lost 75 percent of its market value. As I write this, RIM has announced a last-ditch attempt to recoup market share with a new phone. But RIM may have entered a chapter in a company’s life that could be fatal—a “valley of death.”
That phrase comes from Andrew Grove, the legendary founding CEO of Intel, who recounts a near-death moment in his company’s history. In its early years Intel made silicon chips for what was then the fledgling computer industry. As Grove tells it, top management was oblivious to messages coming from their own sales force telling them that customers were shifting in droves to cheaper chips being made in Japan.
If Intel had not happened to have a side business in microprocessors—which became the ubiquitous “Intel Inside” in the heyday of laptops—the company would have died. But back then, Grove admits, Intel suffered from a “strategic dissonance,” in shifting from making memory chips—its first business success—to designing microprocessors.
The name of Grove’s book—Only the Paranoid Survive—tacitly nods to the necessity of vigilance, scanning for the telling detail on the horizon. This holds true in particular for the tech sector, where super-short product cycles (compared to, say, refrigerators) make the pace of innovation brutal.
The rapid-fire cycle of product innovations in the tech sector makes it a handy source of case studies (somewhat akin to the role that frenetically procreating, short-lived fruit flies play in genetics). In gaming, Nintendo’s remote controller Wii grabbed the market from Sony’s PlayStation 2; Google blew away Yahoo’s supremacy as the favored portal to the Web. Microsoft, which at one point had a 42 percent market share for mobile phone operating systems, saw iPhone earnings mushroom to dwarf the total revenue of Microsoft. Innovations rearrange our sense of what’s possible
RIM during its difficult days offers a textbook example of organizational rigidity, where a company that thrives by being the first to market a new technological twist falls behind successive tech waves because their focus fixates on the old new thing, not the next. An organization that focuses inwardly may execute superbly. But if it has not attuned to the larger world in which it operates, that execution may end up in the service of a failed strategy.
Any business school course on strategy will tell you about two approaches: exploitation and exploration. Some people—and some businesses like RIM—succeed through a strategy of exploitation, where they refine and learn how to improve an existing capacity, technology, or business model. Others find their road to success through exploration, by experimenting with innovative alternatives to what they do now.
Those who exploit can find a safer path to profits, while those who explore can potentially find a far greater success in the next new thing—though the risks of failure are greater, and the horizon of payback further away. Exploitation is the tortoise, exploration the hare.
The best decision-makers are ambidextrous in their balance of the two, knowing when to switch from one to the other. They can lead switch-hitting organizations, which are, for instance, good at seeking growth by simultaneously innovating and containing costs—two very different operations. Kodak was superb at analog photography but stumbled in the new competitive reality of digital cameras.
Danger here abounds during a business downturn, when companies understandably focus on surviving and meeting their numbers by cutting costs—but often at the expense of caring for their people or keeping up with how the world has changed. Being in survival mode narrows our focus.
Apple’s slogan “think different” dictates a switch to exploration. Moving into new territory rather than hunkering down to increase efficiency is more than a contrast in stances—at the level of the brain the two represent entirely different mental functions and neural mechanisms. Attention control holds the key for decision-makers needing to make the switch.
Staying competitive in today’s business world poses a constant demand on a leader’s skill and will to adapt to change. To adapt is to be the right “thing” at the right time, where that “thing” may be a product or service, price, convenience, conversation, a physical presence, verbal tone or non-verbal communique that emits the solution you want to convey.
Companies don’t fail because of changes in the environment, they fail because their leaders are either unwilling or incapable of dealing with said change. In fact, companies don’t change. People do. Which means that to stay competitive in today’s environment warrants not only the skill and will to adapt to change but also the foresight to anticipate it.
However, there’s a misconception about adaptability in that to adapt you must alter who you are at your core, which simply isn’t true. Adapting to change is what keeps us relevant, valuable and at the forefront of the competitive edge. It’s a leadership choice to remain current, but doing so doesn’t change who you are at your core. Just think of a chameleon. To survive in the lizard world, chameleons must change colors but doing so doesn’t change the fact that they’re still little green lizards.
Consider this. Of the companies listed on the Fortune 500 in 1955, only 61 (or 12%) remained in 2014. That means 88% of the original companies either went bankrupt, merged, or fell from grace due to decreased total revenues. Less than one percent of companies actually make the Fortune 500, which means those that do are the best at what they do. In fact, another Forbes article highlighted that 50 years ago, the life expectancy of a firm in the Fortune 500 was around 75 years. Today, it’s less than 15 years and declining.
Unfortunately, one of the reasons companies plummet isn’t because they fail to strive for better, but because they don’t ask themselves the right questions and/or are unwilling to implement the solution. As a result, they don’t evolve. Just ask any of the companies below how important adaptability is.
In today’s mobile-first world where unexpected change is the flavor of the day (every day), organizations need to adapt at the intersection of learning and leadership; they must compete at the speed of adaptability and adapt at the speed of learning. You can only adapt at the rate at which you learn that what was once held to be true, no longer is. But knowledge without application is worthless–it’s about as valuable as yesterday’s news–which speaks to the importance of a leader’s willingness to enter the unknown and pave new pathways.
To sustain competitive advantage is to constantly adapt to change. Here are four ways to do so:
Yes, you read that right. The same training that actors and comedians go through to keep the ball rolling on stage pays big dividends in business, according to Tim Bertrand, Chief Revenue Officer for digital experience provider Acquia. By learning improv, Acquia’s sales force is more apt to deal with unexpected customer questions posed by Acquia’s disruptive business model—a subscription-based open source software solution that eliminates licensing fees.
Moreover, improv teaches you how to fill the gap of uncertainty with momentum by offering a statement or question that propels the relationship between customer and provider forward. In fact, improv is being taught in universities and organizations, such as Johns Hopkins, to teach employees how to manage the unexpected and think on their feet.
Curiosity arises when there’s a gap between what you know and what you need to know to be effective, and to fuel curiosity is to keep people engaged. In the book Curious, the author shares one study where subjects were seated in front of computer screens each divided into a grid of roughly fifty blank squares. When subjects clicked on a new square, a hidden image was revealed. In one group, each square revealed a different animal while in the other group only a fraction of the same animal was revealed such that once all squares were clicked, one whole animal filled the entire screen. Participants in the first group became complacent after realizing that behind each square would reveal yet another boring animal, while those in the second group continued clicking because they wanted to see the bigger picture. The bottom line is this: knowledge feeds knowledge. When you know more you want to learn more; you want to learn how the information at hand supports your endeavor.
With global dispersion and the internet of things rounding out the norms of business today, if you want to arm employees with the right information you can begin by leveraging technology. And I’m not talking about the same technologies most businesses use such as webex or conference calls (which are really just direct lines to boredom and inaction), but media platforms that cater to different learning styles. Acquia, for instance, hosts weekly podcasts to share good and bad sales calls for everyone to learn from. They use Periscope to live stream post mortems that highlight lessons learned, thereby enabling anyone to dial in and watch from wherever they are. The wider your view of the playing field the more informed your decisions will be.
Be clear about the big picture.
When people are aware of what the end state is and in what direction they need to row, they can act on their own decisions about how to win the race, thereby freeing up their leader’s time and mindshare to focus on what they can affect and effect (influence and control). To feed people’s need to know is to fuel their understanding so they can decide and act with autonomy. Here’s a quick test. Ask yourself if, in the past 24 hours, you made a decision that a direct report one or two levels below you could’ve made. If the answer is yes, then the next question is, “why?” Then, ask yourself what would that person would need to know that would provide him with the bandwidth to make more informed decisions. Clayton Christenson, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, sums it up this way: “Questions are places in your mind where answers fit. If you haven’t asked the question, the answer has nowhere to go.”
How do you adapt?
Strategic adaptability is a planned ability to react effectively when business and environmental factors change unexpectedly. Many companies do a good job planning how to operate when things work out as expected. Companies that survive in the long run often plan for flexibility in response to the unexpected.
Potential for Change
The only thing constant in business is change. The challenge in strategic planning is that many of the tools and systems that are commonly used rely on projecting the future based on the past. When budgeting, for instance, companies often take past expenses and simply add a predictable percentage of increased costs for the next year. Societal evolution, customer preference changes, emerging opportunities and threats can all contribute to change in the course of a year that wasn’t predicted during strategic planning.
Planning for Adaptability
Adaptability is the ability to adjust your approach or actions in response to changes in your external environment. It is a valuable skill for individuals and for businesses. The challenge with strategic adaptability is that you essentially have to plan for the unexpected. Naturally, you can’t anticipate changes or problems that your research and intuition don’t reveal. However, you can establish a standard system or method to respond to change within your business. Many companies plan for the unexpected in public relations by setting out whom to respond to when negative publicity occurs.
Factors of Change
Change can occur in a variety of ways. Fast-evolving industries such as technology can transform very quickly. It is not uncommon for customer demands and available technology to change during the course of a year. Preparing a marketing research, development and promotion response to a changing marketplace is one example of strategic adaptability. Legal regulations, resource availability and diversification opportunities are other common areas of change in which adaptability is beneficial.
One of the keys to a company’s strategic adaptability is its ability to learn from experiences. Over time, business leaders make mistakes in preparing for or reacting to market evolution. Recognizing mistakes in research, decision-making, internal and external communication, and other processes helps you adjust over time. Just as your company can acquire new expertise in product development or customer service, it can increase expertise in flexing to change.