When Darwin coined the term, “Adapt or Die,” he was referring to animals. When something in their environment changes, do they adapt to it or do they become extinct? Alaskans certainly see Darwin’s theory in action in the mighty Musk Ox, the great Polar Bear, and the highly intelligent and adaptable wolf.
Of course, Darwin’s theory can be applied to business as well. Successful businesses adapt to changes and challenges or eventually lose their ability to compete or exist entirely.
There are four phases of business evolution. Challenges can occur in each of them.
A requirement of any business is to adapt in such a way to positively maintain or move beyond the current phase, while steering clear of “decline.” Moving out of one phase into another is totally dependent upon the organization’s ability or inability to adapt and innovate.
As a long time Human Resources and Organizational Development professional, my experience has been with gathering, analyzing and providing counsel to mitigate the problems changes create and capitalize on the opportunities they provide. I often engage leadership and work teams by asking a simple question that encourages them to develop an “adaptation” mindset.
For example, a client was experiencing growing pains. While leadership was thrilled there was a high demand for its products and services, the company couldn’t easily keep up with it. Not only did it experience quality and backload issues, which created a marketing and reputation problem, it also found itself with big workforce challenges. Current employees worked large amounts of overtime and pressures to be more productive were unreasonably high. Skill development only occurred “just in time” and often felt like “trial by fire.” Workforce problems aggravate operational difficulties, which in turn create more workforce problems. The vicious cycle was moving the company quickly into the decline phase.
I asked: “How can Leadership respond (adapt) to the supply/demand issue in such a way as to maintain the organization’s current position or move it forward in a positive way?”
The discussion began and adaptation followed. Leadership methodically slowed down the process, giving customers a more reasonable time frame to expect products and services. This meant a decrease in immediate cash flow, so they developed a creative incentive program to maintain a small but consistent revenue stream.
Leadership hired new, albeit unskilled staff and executed a rigorous job shadow and training program. They temporarily outsourced tedious or arduous administrative tasks to free up in-house resources who could create policies and procedures in a short time. These documents helped to ensure consistency in training, quality and service.
Mindful and realistic production of services helped employees maintain a positive work/life balance. Meanwhile, it also developed trust and respect for leadership because the workforce felt “cared for.” This built loyalty, engagement and ownership, which was all leadership needed to turn the production cycles back up.
Adaptation saved this company from decline.
Another client was struggling, as many of us are, with Alaska’s unstable economy. A previously mature and healthy organization, it found itself with serious revenue problems, bulbous and dangerous levels of credit debt and incredible workforce pressures. Leadership came to me asking for help in preparing them for the painful administration of layoffs.
Instead, I asked: “How can Leadership respond (adapt) to this issue in such a way as to maintain the organization’s current position or move it forward in a positive way?”
It was not easy but a good discussion ensued. The decline phase invites fear and adaptation (change) also invites fear. Fear rarely makes conversations easy!)
Instead of the knee-jerk reaction of culling the most expensive labor from their teams, they put these tenured employees to work in other ways that added value or revenue. Some filled gaps elsewhere in the organization and simultaneously trained and mentored newer (and lower paid) staff. This not only ensured inexpensive and effective succession and development of the newer workforce, but it also allowed the tenured workforce to reengage their minds and spirits while adding value. In some cases, it was the legacy these long-term employees were searching for and they then positively engaged with the organization regarding phased retirement (as opposed to the more difficult conversation of forced retirement). Some tenured staff were assigned to technical and expert project teams and then “leased out” to other companies in the industry, which proved to be an interesting new source of revenue.
Instead of employing a “quit spending” attitude, leadership identified ways to “spend a little, save a lot.” For example, process improvement events aimed to decrease waste, redundancies and cycle times while increasing quality and service were executed. Naturally, resources were expended for these events but within nine months, the organization broke even and/or surpassed its investment.
Collaborative technology purchases were made, which immediately decreased travel expenses and lost work time. In addition, the installation of collaborative technology allowed quite a bit of the workforce to begin working remotely (some full time and some part time), which resulted in heightened morale and increased productivity. In addition, the organization consolidated its space and was able to rid itself of expensive real estate.
Previous funds earmarked for professional development were redistributed to creative learning and improvement activities to empower the workforce, to do more with less and work smarter. This organic approach to improvement had a terrific and totally unexpected result. Employees began to own the problem and put incredible effort into solving it. Not only did they identify ways to work more efficiently but they also identified different revenue streams, products and services to add to the organization’s current offerings. These add-ons added little expense but helped immensely to maintain the current customer base.
Adaptation helped this client move out of a decline and, in many ways, back into the startup phase.
In summary, I’d like to remind you that Alaska is truly awesome, awe-inspiring and formidable. Our wildlife has proven to be hardy and adaptable. Our vegetation and flora has modified and acclimated in order to survive. We, too, can adjust to the changes around us. In doing so, we will not only get through it but come out stronger and more prepared for success.
This article first appeared in the July 2016 issue of STRIVE magazine.
About the Author
Heather Kinzie recently celebrated her twentieth year a Human Resources and Organizational Development professional, ten of which have been spent as Principal of A Leading Solution, a sole proprietorship offering workforce and organizational performance services to a variety of stateside and national clients. As Business Development Manager for The Chariot Group, Heather supplements her knowledge of business operations with information regarding innovative technologies to help business leaders imagine enhanced opportunities for collaboration, engagement and performance.