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BW Businessworld

Adaptability Is Key To Winning In Crisis Times

All around us there is an overpowering miasma of despair as caseloads and death tolls mount and 140 crore Indians seek redemption on the back of several frantic rounds of lockdowns that failed to slow down let alone flatten the curve.

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Reality is merely an illusion — albeit a very persistent one

--Albert Einstein

Since the old playbooks are no longer valid in the new reality, the only way you can survive and later succeed is by being utterly adaptable

For long, we have known that the only constant is change. And now, in the midst of Covid, uncertainty appears to be the only certainty. It is as if a hurricane has ripped through our homes, offices and businesses, blowing all their well-arranged pieces out of the window – jobs, careers, work, social connects, familiar routines…everything. Given that we live in a world pre-occupied with counting its dead and diseased, it may seem a long stretch, but the fact is that despite the gloom, the feeling business leaders must resist with all their might is the feeling of helplessness. All around us there is an overpowering miasma of despair as caseloads and death tolls mount and 140 crore Indians seek redemption on the back of several frantic rounds of lockdowns that failed to slow down let alone flatten the curve.

Corporate leaders are masters in managing businesses, trained and experienced to deal with economic, financial or market debacles; but facing them now are depredations caused by an unimaginable health crisis, the like of which they would not have seen. Trauma and upheaval are coming at us on multiple fronts: self, family, employees, customers, suppliers, business partners, governmental and financial systems… It’s a lot of change to get used to all at once. Impossible to achieve “unless we are adaptable.” 

So, What Happens Now? In their just published eponymous book, Mark Nevins and John Hillen answer that question over 329 pages. The crux is: “Leaders, even highly successful ones, must reinvent and change themselves or risk being over-run.” The buzzwords ricocheting around B-Schools, marketplaces and business boardrooms for riding out the crisis are adaptability, flexibility and reinvention. Even of those, most experts agree, adaptability is really the key because it pre-supposes flexibility and leads to reinvention…a logic core to evolution of life itself as old as Darwin. As Nitin Nohria, Dean, Harvard Business School, noted in a recent paper: “In the complex and uncertain environment of a sustained, evolving crisis, the most robust organizations will be those with continuous sensing and response capabilities. As Darwin noted, the most adaptive species are the fittest.”

The question is: What type of organisation is most likely to be able to adapt around disruptive, volatile change? The best bets according to Nohria would be networked organisations with distributed leadership and loosely coupled, dispersed, cross-trained work forces, guided by simple, flexible rules. Says Nevins: “Today’s realities are quite different from those of the last week. To deal with them you have to be flexible, adaptive, and willing to make difficult choices.” In the context of a monstrous crisis like the pandemic adaptiveness roughly translates into practicing new ways of problem solving in an unpredictable and fast-changing environment. That is, an organisation war-gamed and geared ground-up to adapt to and survive earth-shaking changes, like, for example, losing 30 % of its workforce overnight or the collapse of an entire supply chain.  

Closely related to the concept of distributed leadership and dispersed cross-trained workforces, is the idea of outsourcing, which is not particularly new but has remained largely restricted to non-core functions at the periphery of operations. Other than helping organisations achieve higher levels of efficiency and save cash, outsourcing CXO level functionaries contributes significantly to their adaptability and to their critical need for business continuity in times of cataclysmic change. It is like being powered by an array of remotely functioning independent decision-makers each capable of taking charge and driving an organisation should the others blow out. Companies often and quite rightly fuss over the need to have redundant computers and disks for dealing with emergencies. But how about redundant leaders? It’s a thought worth looking at. Says Nohria at the Harvard Business School: “Companies need a global network of people that can coordinate and drive adaptation as events unfold, reacting immediately and appropriately to disruptions such as lapses in communication inside and outside the organization and losses of physical and human resources.” 

Finally, as it now seems, reality is, in fact, an illusion. Only, we suckered ourselves into believing that nothing would fundamentally change despite being knocked about by wave upon life-changing wave of technology, because the reality was a very persistent one! As well-known executive coach Marcia Reynolds says: “The idea that we believed everything was going to be okay was unreasonable. Unexpected shifts are always around the corner, whether in personal life or in business.” Adaptability in the face of uncertainty is important because it allows us to see the possibilities in unanticipated change. “Sure, the pandemic could be the apocalypse. Or, it could just be accelerating changes that were going to happen anyway — such as the shift to remote work.” In an Indian context, demonetisation could, for example, be seen as a disaster or in fact a highly disruptive change that accelerated what was anyway desirable and would have inevitably happened…the mass migration of Indians to digital payments. Sure, when changes that are meant to happen in 25 years are condensed into six months it can cause widespread disruption and panic. But history has shown that people, countries and organisations that are able to adapt best to such changes are invariably the ones that end up at the top.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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Sridhar Raman

Sridhar is the Director at COHIRE. He is a content and marketing communications expert and business strategist with over 30 years of leadership experience at premier brands including Emap PLC UK, Larsen & Toubro, JSPL and Business World.

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