Staying Competitive Requires Adaptability


Jeff Boss

May 16, 2016

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 fifty 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:

Improv. 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 today as a means to adapt to any situation. Dr. Stefanie Boyer, Associate Professor and head of Bryant University’s sales program, uses improv training to teach sales students how to manage the unexpected during their Northeast Intercollegiate Sales Competition (of which Dr. Boyer is founder and director).

Fuel curiosity. 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.

Leverage technology. 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?

This article was written by Jeff Boss from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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