“Sustainable Adaptability”: Possible or Impossible?

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“An adaptive enterprise (or adaptive organization) is an organization in which the goods or services demand and supply are matched and synchronized at all times. Such an organization optimizes the use of its resources (including its information technology resources), always using only those it needs and paying only for what it uses, yet ensuring that the supply is adequate to meet demand.”1

Organizations—enterprises, corporations, companies, and businesses—exist to make the biggest profit possible in the shortest amount of time. Their secondary goal is to sustain that pattern of highly competitive profitability indefinitely. That begs the question: is there a paradigm in which adaptive and sustainable can be inherently interwoven, or is sustainable adaptability an oxymoron?

The way-of-doing-business changes that enterprises face just to exist in today’s evolving competitive environment are extreme, challenges coming shortly are even more intense, and they are coming at all of us at record speed and variety. There is no question that each business has to adapt quickly and effectively to respond profitably to each new development. So, while successful business leaders and their teams are adapting at a frantic rate, is it possible to build a sustainable, adaptive culture?

Yes. Effective adaptiveness is an always-evolving, innovative, learned and encouraged way of thinking and acting—existing. Adaptive leaders understand that what worked today won’t work tomorrow, and they empower their teams to roll fluidly in front of the flow. They excel in the following characteristics2:

  • Scalable: grows with ease to serve changing and growing customer needs
  • Extensible: augments existing business capabilities with new ones in an integrated and
    seamless fashion
  • Responsive: reacts quickly to changing situations to take advantage of the opportunity
  • Forward Leaning: innovates regarding new business opportunities
  • Market Driving: changes the market game against the competition through innovation
    and preparedness
  • Modular: consists of discrete business components that can be used to assemble new capabilities on-demand rapidly
  • A Leader: is a step ahead of the competition with a voice of its own and acts as an inspiration
    to others

The secret to profitability from the flow, then, is being predictive and unafraid to take action. Here are some critical elements of the flow (in no particular order as each organization’s objectives and methodologies weigh the challenges differently, e.g., some might need to put human power first, while others do more with fewer people and put more technology in a lead role):

Inventory—If you have too much, it ties up your financial resources; too little and you can’t meet demand in a timely fashion. Adaptive organizations partner with businesses in their supply chain that are equally adaptive and have learned how to read internal and external data to ramp up for high demand and fall-back during slow periods, so neither the company that needs access to inventory nor the partner-suppliers warehouse too much or too little at any time.

People—When the way of doing business changes in response to demand (and supply), it invariably makes some human resources redundant and creates the need for new and different capabilities. While it’s always difficult, even emotional, for leaders to remove existing team members and bring in new talent, and onboarding and training is expensive, the cost of maintaining personnel that are a bad fit in any way for any reason is a much greater strain on the organization’s resources that putting the right people in place to ensure that every change in the flow is optimized for business profitability, and all heads are in the working-the-future-right-now space.

Information—Data, data, data and more data. There’s a lot of old data that is meaningless, and some old data that is golden. The new data may or may not have roots in previous information, but it’s always golden (until it becomes old useless data). A massive industry exists to tackle the hard questions about how to assimilate, understand and react to data, and every business leader will rely more and more on what the industry delivers. Internally, leaders and their teams have to start expecting that, by the end of every day, they will make an incremental or epic change based on data they either received or just understood that day. It’s far less important for most organizations to figure out the mechanics of how to get and read data than it is for the companies to take risks associated with reacting quickly to what they do have and comprehend.

Technology—Considering just the issues of the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics and 3D printing, almost every business person’s head is spinning, and a palpable anxiety is justified. Will 3D printing make manufacturing as we know it obsolete? Will robots replace our workforce? Can we harness the intelligence with which the IoT is rife? Probably yes. Maybe no. Who knows? But what we do know is if we assume the answer to all of the above is yes and adjust our business practices accordingly, then we are the ones who can adapt to the flow, be ahead of it and hence be ahead of our competition, thus fostering a culture of sustainable adaptiveness.

Business Priorities—Finally, we’ll all need to determine, every day, if our organizational priorities can be profitable in the business environment of the immediate and long-term future. We have to be willing to say, sometimes on a daily basis, “Well, we spent some time and other resources on _____, but it’s meaningless and not viable now… so, next?” And whatever is next needs to be determined and executed very quickly as it might be this month’s victory and next month’s discard.

Ultimately, any leader who can create a culture in which flexibility, quick decision-making, and fearless execution are the norms will have created a culture of sustainable adaptiveness. Such a culture fostered continuously, can start at top speed and evolve to light speed. The new paradigm of sustainable adaptive: learn fast, decide fast, succeed/fail fast, repeat faster.




Additional Reading

Operational Excellence for Agile and Adaptive Companies

Effective Leadership: Adaptive vs. Mechanical

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