Lessons in adaptability
Among the most important similarities between nature and business is that the fundamental goal of the individuals in these systems — organisms and businesses — is to survive.
Today, no industry or company is safe from disruption, but many organizations are not prepared to adapt quickly enough to survive accelerating change.
For companies to position themselves for long-term success in this shifting environment, business leaders must prioritize adaptability as a must-have organizational trait. Businesses can no longer rely on traditional measures of business fitness. They must change their perspective and transform quickly and at scale to become adaptable today to survive tomorrow, but how?
We focus here on three general ways that companies can start their journeys to becoming more adaptable and, therefore, more fit for an uncertain future. Businesses can:
- Adopt a new perspective on business fitness
- Plan for multiple possible futures
- Avoid common mistakes
1. Adopt a new perspective on business fitness
Organisms that are most likely to survive in their given environments and, therefore, most likely to survive are known as the fittest. The fittest species are not necessarily those that are the biggest, strongest, or fastest. Rather, the species that can succeed in their specific environments are the most likely to survive and thrive.
In a business context, size, reach and efficiency were traditionally seen as leading indicators of business fitness. For example, Sears once dominated North American retail through thousands of stores and efficient supply chain. Today, Sears Holdings has shuttered most of its stores.³ Failure to understand customer needs, limited investment in e-commerce, and inadequate leadership are among the factors that led to Sears’ demise. These traits limited the company’s ability to adapt, and its business model collapsed under pressure from new market forces.
There are many more popular examples of companies formerly dominant in their industries that failed to adapt to disruptions, from Kodak to Blockbuster. These anecdotes oversimplify highly complex situations, but they provide an important lesson.
Many business leaders still appear to believe that traditional indicators of market dominance provide an insurmountable competitive advantage. However, as disruption accelerates, evidence suggests that the biggest and “strongest” industry players are not always the most likely to survive. This has become increasingly clear as the pandemic has drawn on, with many companies, large and small, struggling to survive the COVID-19 disruption and its ripple effects.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the pace of disruption and highlighted the extent of globalization and the interconnectivity of technology, society and nature in new ways. This paradigm shift has also revealed the fragility of many companies that were long seen as industry leaders.
Not all companies have struggled during the pandemic, however. Some companies were in the right place at the right time, such as so-called “work from home” companies and e-commerce leaders. Others have remained stable due to a strong focus on resilience, financial stability and contingency planning. Even fewer have used the crisis strategically to innovate their business models or to grow. These companies have demonstrated the uncommon ability to adapt quickly to the changing environment. Such organizations are uniquely positioned to compete amid uncertainty in the now, next and beyond.