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How To Build A Culture Of Adaptability When Change Is The Only Constant  

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In these environments, teams view ambiguity not as a hurdle but as a chance to innovate, act quickly and find solutions.

In an era where change is the only constant, organizations are compelled to evolve swiftly to remain competitive within their industries. Adhering solely to traditional methods is no longer viable, as it risks leaving a business lagging in innovation and growth. The story of Blockbuster serves as a cautionary tale in this regard.

Blockbuster’s decline was the result of multiple missteps, yet one critical decision—or rather, the lack thereof—markedly stands out. During a crucial period, John Antioco, the CEO, passed up the chance to acquire Netflix for $50 million in 2000, considering it a “very small niche business.” This oversight proved to be a monumental misjudgment. By 2006, Netflix had a subscriber base of 6 million people.

Although it seemed like all hope was lost, purchasing Netflix was not the only viable path to a better future. With a more adaptable culture in the face of a rapidly changing industry, Blockbuster might have been better positioned to leverage new technologies and evolve its business model effectively. However, as we know, Blockbuster struggled to adapt and filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

What is Accelerating the Need for Adaptability in Business?

The increasing need for adaptability in business is driven by the rapid evolution of technologies such as generative AI, machine learning, and robotics. According to a 2023 McKinsey survey, 79 percent of respondents reported having been exposed to generative AI, whether in a professional setting or elsewhere, and 22 percent are using it regularly in their work.

These innovations are revolutionizing work, automating routine tasks, speeding up experimentation, and relieving human employees of monotonous activities. However, harnessing the full potential of these technologies isn’t straightforward and demands significant adaptability at every level of an organization.

For instance, when a company shifts from manual to robotic sorting for package delivery, it faces numerous changes. Adjusting the size, marking, labeling, and insurance of packages involves a comprehensive effort from various departments, highlighting the need for diverse skill sets. Traditional business models, which rely on centralized planning to implement new processes, fall short in this fast-paced technological landscape. The creation, approval and distribution of guidelines can’t keep up with the speed at which AI, machine learning and robotics evolve, rendering them outdated soon after deployment.

Business Leadership Skills for Nurturing Greater Adaptability

Leaders, including those who already embrace an adaptive mindset or are fostering a culture of high resilience, must remain alert to complacency and reinforcement of the status quo within their teams. This ongoing effort is crucial in an era of relentless technological advancement. Here are four ways you can encourage a culture of adaptability:

1. Adopt a holistic perspective of your organization. The process of integrating new technology is seldom straightforward or static. View your organization as an interconnected ecosystem, where mutual dependencies and shared knowledge are the norm, rather than seeing it as a simple value chain with sequential, one-way process steps. To fully leverage the capabilities of AI, ML or robotics, collaboration across departments—such as sales, marketing, legal and distribution—is essential, especially in product development. Additionally, keep the lines of communication open with engineering and data processing teams even after launching the product.

2. Say yes more. This means approaching new ideas with an openness to explore their potential rather than immediately resorting to caution. Adopt a strategy that includes careful risk assessment and thoughtful allocation of resources but with a bias toward seizing opportunities for growth and learning. Create an environment where experimentation is encouraged, and failures are viewed as valuable lessons. Such a proactive stance prepares your organization to thrive by taking advantage of the ever-changing business landscape.

3. Eliminate information silos.The complex nature of new technologies often necessitates tight collaboration between different departments. For example, an engineer working with large language models should involve the legal team from the start to avoid potential liabilities related to intellectual property rights or privacy issues, which could prove costly. Aim for an overarching view of your operations to identify any existing silos. If found, consider revising organizational norms and policies to foster teamwork and promote widespread experimentation throughout the company.

4. Encourage and reward adaptability through incentives.It’s important to ensure that your talent management and finance teams understand the importance of systemic collaboration. To support this, you may need to adjust compensation structures and mitigate perceived career risks. Talented and motivated team members can quickly become disenchanted with innovation if they face negative consequences—whether social, financial or political—after participating in just one experimental project.

High adaptability cultures are not only resilient but also flourish. In these environments, teams view ambiguity not as a hurdle but as a chance to innovate, act quickly and find solutions to problems that may not yet be fully understood.


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