So We Adapt. What’s the Downside?
Summing Up Jim Heskett's readers ponder the question of whether the virtues of adaptability in a chaotic world undermine an organization's ability to commit.
Adaptability and commitment are complementary concepts, appropriate in different situations, over different time periods, and in response to different challenges. That's the general sense that one gets in reading over the responses to this month's column.
Several argued that, up to a point, adaptability is a strength. Ravindra Edirisooriya asserted that "Adaptability is good in the short term since it will allow the use of existing labor, materials, machinery and technology and it is not disruptive. However, there is a limit to adaptability (if it precludes longer-term investment, for example)." As C. J. Cullinane put it, "we have to be adaptable and flexible but … Too much adaptability can lead to … lack of direction…" RT said that there is "No shame in revising ideas—publicly and to ourselves."
There are times when commitment more clearly takes precedence over adaptability. Tom Dolembo pointed out that "Lincoln 'triangulated' … But he never waivered on the issue of union." Yadeed Lobo stated that adaptability may not be the best approach in dealing with "inappropriate behavior" or harassment at work. David Physick commented that "Where I believe we need more than ever to be strident and more fixed is in our intolerance of unacceptable behavior by our leaders."
Both commitment and adaptability have their place. Jeffrey Cufaude reminded us that Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, as a result of the research leading to their book, Built to Last, advised us to "Preserve the core but stimulate progress." Phil Clark argued that commitment, embodied for him in habit, "gives us time to pay attention and think about what is happening around us. It allows us the chance to adapt to the changing world."
Santhanam Krishnan commented on the ultimate complementarity between the two concepts this way: "Commitment to remain adaptable to changing situations is the formula for survival…" Lynne Levesque argued that organizations have to commit to a strong sense of purpose "and be willing to test, experiment, create and innovate along the way and to also be willing to reexamine that purpose frequently enough to be sure it is still relevant." As she put it, "It really is all about balance!"
This suggests yet another tension in leadership, a kind of tightrope walk like so many perilous paths that leaders today have to negotiate daily. Do they have to ask themselves constantly when to adapt and when to commit? Is that one of the basic issues of leadership? What do you think?
Adaptability is a current byword in a world filled with uncertainty at all levels, including that of the individual. We adapt by listening to and heeding customers. We adapt by delegating authority, often to teams operating at the lowest levels of the organization. We adapt by tracking, responding to, and even encouraging the development of disruptive technologies. Now we have a guide to the subject, appropriately titled Adapt, written by Tim Harford. Its subtitle is Why Success Always Starts with Failure, immediately raising my suspicions about any assertion that contains the word "always."
Harford's thesis is that in an increasingly complex world where many things are interconnected, it is harder and harder to explain why things, including success, happen. He asks why success in fact is no insurance against subsequent failure, as all writers about individual companies and their managers at the peak of their performances have discovered. He concludes that evidence "implies that effective planning is rare in the modern economy," that "whether we like it or not, trial and error is a tremendously powerful process for solving problems in a complex world, while expert leadership is not," and sets out to explore why this is the case.
The prescription appears simple: "First, seek out new ideas and try new things; second, when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable; third, seek out feedback and learn from your mistakes as you go along." As Ken Iverson, the legendary former CEO of Nucor Steel put it, "if something's worth doing, it's worth doing wrong… Get on with it and see if it works." We are often admonished to "try a lot of things and keep what works."
But Harford points out that this is easier said than done. Those who adapt are not always viewed favorably. If they were, we would value and honor "flip-floppers." The acceptable answer to the question, "Who's in charge around here?" is rarely someone other than the CEO, and it influences a CEO's tendency to talk when he should be listening. To say that the strategy of a so-called adaptive corporation such as Google is to have no corporate strategy is a bit unsettling. Further, Harford points to evidence that many of us have a hard time distinguishing between success and failure. We often deny failure, or we identify failure then chase our losses in an effort to make them back, or we convince ourselves that there isn't much to be learned from a mistake because the mistake doesn't matter. He prescribes such things as the utilization of spaces like universities in which to experiment safely, or a personal critic or "validation squad" to provide objective comment on our actions.
With so much advocacy for flexibility and adaptability, is it time for a contrarian view? In a complex and confusing world, aren't those who appear to have the answers the ones we follow, for better or worse? Are we really at a tipping point of complexity in our world that it requires following only those willing to adapt? Should someone write yet another book, perhaps with a title like Commit: Why Success Always Requires Continued Commitment to Good Ideas? What's the downside of "adapt"? What do you think?
Tim Harford, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011)