Adaptation

Darwin2While I am not usually drawn to military memoirs, I found I could not put down General Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement For a Complex world. The book is an easy read, even for military know-nothings like myself. He does a masterful job of telling his own story, while extrapolating from it some great lessons in leadership and organizational change. He tells how when he took over in Iraq, he found the traditional “centralized management style” of the U.S. Army no longer worked against the more fluid and agile enemy of Al Qaeda. The challenge was obvious, and stark: adapt quickly or die.

In Team of Teams, he challenges leaders to create organizations that are more nimble, transparent, horizontal rather than hierarchical, and that empower their people to execute based on the concept of a “shared consciousness.” In other words, help people to understand the common goal, and then empower them to do their jobs to the best of their ability. In the tech startup world where I often circulate, “agile” is a new buzzword I often hear bandied about. It describes a similar adaptive quality that allows companies to detect changes on the wind, and make corrective adjustments almost in real time.  

One of the great business blunders of recent times is the way Kodak failed to understand the digital revolution that was sweeping the photographic industry that they helped to pioneer. Kodak’s inability (or unwillingness) to change their business model from the highly profitable film model to pixels, would ultimately cause them to go bankrupt. With the benefit of hindsight, it seems almost laughable that such an innovative company could be so blind, but I think it perfectly illustrates the enormous challenge of organizational change. Human beings possess an almost uncanny ability to resist change at all costs. But change we must.  What are some of the ways we can do this?

  1. Do Not Fear Change, Fear Not Changing
    For any change to occur, the people at the top have to at least be open to change. Ironically, the more success you achieve – either as an individual or a company – the harder it can be to accept change. We become invested in doing things one way “because it worked so well in the past.” This is the kind of thinking that got Kodak into trouble. Unlike their founder, George Eastman, who was a great innovator, Kodak’s management team in the 90’s was unwilling to consider digital as a replacement for film. We invented this technology, they thought, and by golly people like it! But tastes change over time, as well as the technology. By resisting the natural shift that was happening all around them, they failed to respond effectively. By the time they decided to jump on board with the digital revolution, the ship had already sailed.
  1. When The Landscape Changes, Get A New Roadmap
    The best companies – the ones that survive over the long haul – are constantly evolving in new and interesting ways. Being able to adapt the business plan to changing conditions on the ground is key. Problems arise when someone refuses to give up the map, even when it’s obvious the map is wholly outdated, or worse – inaccurate. It is the courageous leader who will stand up and say, “You know what, this isn’t working for us anymore. I think we need to change direction.” Often, change is very difficult for organizations because there are egos involved. There may be money already spent, and they fear the deep negative costs of an about-face: how much is this going to cost me? But often the cost of not changing, when it is clearly indicated, will be higher.
  1. Increase Your Exposure
    Our muscles become stiff if we don’t exercise them now and again. So too with our organizations: a lack of stretch leads to rigidity over time, and rigid structures can often suffer from tunnel vision. One way to increase your flexibility is to deliberately put yourself into a position where you must use your adaptive muscles. Maybe instead of always staying at the Marriot, which you know and like, you could try Airbnb? Instead of taking the same vacation, which you know and adore, you might try a different location? The only way to grow our adaptive muscles is to flex them now and again, and that means occasionally we must increase our exposure to new people, new ideas, new ways of looking at the world. By gradually increasing our exposure to ambiguity, or minds are forced to be open, curious, agile.
  1. Challenge All Assumptions
    Over the course of many years as a recruiter, and then as a coach, I’ve had the opportunity to engage with a lot of different companies and leaders. More than any other trait, I find it is the quality of intellectual curiosity that separates the good from the great. To be curious is to challenge deeply held assumptions, even habits they’ve engaged in for years, and ask “Is this the best way forward?” Of course, this implies a certain level of humility. It says, “The world is complex and rapidly changing, and what worked for us in the past, may not work in the future.” I’d argue that the current Pope is a leader of exceptional courage and ability. It begins with his humility.

Bottom line: Darwin was right. All of us must constantly adapt, or face possible extinction.

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