Evolution and the new normal – Moving from surviving to thriving


The Oxford dictionary describes “natural selection” as the process whereby organisms better adapted to their environment tend to survive and produce more offspring.

Why is this theory important and where did it come from?

In the year 1831 Charles Darwin set out on the HMS Beagle for the Galapagos Islands and spent the next five years studying the flora and fauna of the region. During this period, he visited various islands and noticed that many species had adapted to survive in the unique environment of different islands. He realised that over time those species survived that were able to evolve and adapt to their ecosystem. Nature only rewarded those species that had a strong “change gene”.

Natural history is replete with examples of species that weren’t able to adapt quickly enough and perished. The Ice Age started coming to an end between 12-15,000 years ago and with that the era of the Wooly Mammoth and Saber Tooth came to an end. Powerful creatures of their era..why were they unable to adapt and what lessons can we learn from them and apply to our own change?

Covid 19 has impacted the world at a massive scale and parallels have been drawn with the Spanish Flu of 1918. The whole world came to a stop and a disruption at this scale was like the Ice Age coming to an end! Entire economies came to a standstill with some industries virtually getting wiped out e.g. travel, aviation, traditional retail. A change of this magnitude is hard to comprehend and can easily trigger confusion, fear and paralyze us into inaction.This is what many sectors have experienced in the last few months which has impacted revenues, cash flows and further impacted people’s ability to restart. A recent example is that of Virgin Atlantic Australia which filed for bankruptcy a few months ago.

As the world starts settling down to a “new normal” Nature’s advice is to accept the change, adapt quickly and move on. There are numerous examples of businesses that have successfully embraced change in the past and let’s look at a few for inspiration.

IBM which was one of the most successful technology companies in the 80’s was looking in the mirror and asking itself some hard questions in the 90’s. It was focusing on hardware and services, when the whole market was moving to integrated technology solutions. This meant it had to change its strategy, structure and culture (ways of working) to succeed in the new business environment. IBM launched one of the largest transformation programs in recent decades and was on top of the table in less than a decade. Microsoft was able to make a similar transition in the last decade moving away from a “Windows mindset” to a “Cloud mindset” where it was collaborating with previous competitors to offer the best solutions to the customer. This shift in strategy and mindsets helped it compete with the likes of Google and Amazon. Closer home we’ve seen Reliance turn into a digital behemoth, having invested in building world class infrastructure. Today’s it’s on the verge of getting into mobility, retail, entertainment, enterprise solutions leveraging its massive infrastructure and data to do business on a different scale.

So what are the common principles we can learn from these examples to apply to our work? There are 3 key ones that come on top.

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Technology – many businesses that have managed to remain successful have been able to consciously adapt to new technology. This sounds simple, but is much more difficult to execute. Legacy value chains and structures are built around old business models and changing that requires both courage and vision. Technology changes at a rapid pace and identifying and integrating the right technology or partnership in time requires that right assessment. It requires taking calculated risks, taking people along and executing with speed. As businesses deal with this disruption they will see change in consumer behaviour, employee behaviours and new ways of working. 

A good question to ask might be “what’s the opportunity in all this change and how can my business leverage technology to drive it?” 

Leadership – change requires leadership and skills required for steady state leadership are very different from transformational leadership. Transformational leadership requires the twin abilities of courageous decision making and taking people along. It requires bold decisions, rallying the troops and creating a narrative that appeals to people. Any major transformation brings along with it a change in skills and structure and its related redundancies. Old skills have to be cast aside to build an organization for the future and that causes much grief. Successful leaders are able to manage and tide over this phase of grief quickly to rally people around this new organization. They are able to manage internal politics and alignments well and build a collaborative culture. 

Culture– It’s been often said that “culture eats strategy” and this is the unseen demon that resides within the organization that can eat it from inside. Any strategy designed around a new value proposition ends us serving the customer in new ways. Sometimes these new “ways of working” are radically different from the old ways. Successful organizations are able to make this transition quickly. They consciously put together a program that helps identify, build and lock in these new behaviours. Rewards, capabilities and leadership are aligned around these and a combination of actions helps move the organization forward. 

Change is upon us and the first six months of 2020 will impact us for a long time to come. Consumer behaviour will change and will impact business incomes in different ways. While this might present opportunities for some, it will also bring challenges for many. It will be our ability to demonstrate agility, courage and adaptability that will help us move from thrive to survive.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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