Adapt or Die

Whether you are a part of the C-Suite, or if you are on the Board of Directors or a Principal Shareholder, you need to be prepared to adapt, and not be caught in a response-only mode in a VUCA environment.

For the last few days, I have been away at our company’s annual conference.  I always return from these conferences with many new friends among our customer base, and some great stories to be told.  However, I also return from them exhausted after three straight 16 hour days filled with networking, teaching, travel and fulfilling the role of ambassador for our company to current customers and future customers.  It’s an honor to participate in these events, and I truly enjoy them…but I feel like I need to sleep for a week to fully re-charge!

Over the course of the conference, one of the major themes was something I have often seen referenced as the VUCA environment: Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous.  Banking is one sector that is truly in a VUCA environment as it faces challenges on many fronts:  Regulatory changes that make operating more complex, increased competition from non-standard sectors like Silicon Valley and Retailers offering banking products, Generational transfers where older customers are uncomfortable with technology/product changes needed to attract younger generations, threats to data security and even the national population migration towards city centers and away from rural areas and small, community banks.  A number of the presentations at the conference touched on these issues, and it was never too far from discussion among the conference attendees.

It got me thinking about adaptability, which is a necessary part of a viable business strategy not only for banking, but for any industry.  If you expect to remain in business in the future, standing still is simply not an option; as the adage goes:

If you are standing still, you are already falling behind.

While this is a challenge for all employees within a business, it is a particular challenge to business leaders.  Whether you are a part of the C-Suite, or if you are on the Board of Directors or a Principal Shareholder, you need to be prepared to adapt, and not be caught in a response-only mode in a VUCA environment.

Herrmann International published a white paper in April 2014 provocatively titled How Will You Adapt, and it covers not only the necessity of adaption skills, but it also gives some concrete steps you can take to increase your own adaptability and the adaptability of your leaders.  The antidote to VUCA and all of the stresses that it produces, the paper argues, is to develop thinking agility, which they define as “…the ability to consciously shift your thinking when the situation requires it.”  But how do you go about doing that?  The paper gives you four tips to help.

Redefine Leadership This begins by asking how many employees have the appropriate levels of leadership agility necessary to lead the organization in the future.  Are your leaders stuck in auto-pilot…or even worse, with their heads in the sand?  Do you have agile leaders who aren’t in leadership roles?  If that is the case, you need to take an open and honest look at these situations.

Most leaders today struggle to keep up with yesterday’s definition of what it meant to lead, let alone shifting their thinking to what is required today — agility.  But no leader, at any level, has the luxury of being single-minded anymore.
– How Will You Adapt?

So how do you solve this gap?  One solution is by making yourself conscious of mindsets that you have when you are on auto-pilot, and putting forth the effort to engage all of your mental processes.  This also means that competencies for positions, including leadership positions, need to be re-evaluated with forward thinking in mind.

Engage Every Brain (including your own) – This includes everything from making sure you get enough sleep to reducing multi-tasking.  The paper recommends that trainers keep a few best practices in mind when developing training session to help increase thinking agility.  Trainers should remember to provide context, engage the emotions of the students, introduce novelty into the training sessions, create meaty challenges, provide time for processing/practice and stagger learning to prevent overwhelming the audience.  You should also leverage all of the benefits your organization has to offer, especially benefits that may be overlooked.

Capitalizing on the wealth of diversity in thinking — the collective intelligence in your organization — will provide a significant competitive advantage, but only if you and your leaders recognize it as an asset and know how to leverage it though engagement. 
– How Will You Adapt?

Future-Proof Your Leaders –  The whitepaper makes a surprising statement that I think is right on:  The need for clarity can shut down thinking, particularly the strategic, long-term thinking required to stay ahead.  When you are busy trying to figure out the how of a particular situation, you lose track of the why, which can be far more important in the long run.  How do you begin to cultivate this kind of long-term thinking?  By dropping the need for 100% accuracy in any situation…which is something you can never achieve anyway.  Instead, start asking “What If?” type questions, which forces you to think in a more long-term way.  Not only is this freeing in a way (after all, why chase a mirage across a desert?), it encourages leaders and future leaders to lighten up, which is a much more effective way to deal with ambiguity and tension inherent in VUCA.

Take a page from the world of IT development where “agile” is a mantra and processes have regular checkpoints built in to allow for future-proofing the product along the way.  It’s a great example of an approach your leaders should adapt.
– How Will You Adapt? 

Orchestrate Agility – How in the world does one orchestrate agility?  The first step is to simply acknowledge reality; acknowledge the fact that we all have less time and resources to get more things done than ever before.  This reality isn’t merely a coping mechanism of the recent downturn….it’s permanent.  One great tip to help you deal with this is to make a list of everything you need to do, and then immediately assume that you will have only half of the resources and time you expect to have to finish all of the items on it.  This simple mental trick immediately forces your brain to be more agile and creative as it looks for ways to get things done.  It is also important to ask not only “What do we need to start doing?” but also “What do we need to stop doing?”.

When so much complexity is outside our control, this is a great opportunity for you and your leaders to simplify what you can control.
– How Will You Adapt?

If you are interested in more tips and tricks to help you develop more agile thinking, download the whitepaper here.

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