Adaptability is a core component of business longevity, and COVID-19 has made it even more essential, not only for growth and profitability but for your company’s actual survival. How and where we work, interact with customers and coworkers, and deliver products and services have all been changed, and these processes continue to evolve based on safety precautions. The companies that survive and thrive are those that can adapt quickly to continue meeting the needs of their customers.
We spoke to several business owners, strategists, and other experts to get their insights on the topic.
The Importance of Cultivating Adaptability
“As a small business owner, the last thing you need in an ultra-dynamic 21st century is structural rigidity,” warns Michael D. Brown, global management expert and the author of Fresh Passion: Get a Brand or Die a Generic. He says that volatility should be expected—especially in the small business sector. “Adaptability is the lifesaving oxygen of contemporary micro-businesses.”
However, Brown says he encounters a lot of “executive stiffness” from small business owners. “This is a catastrophic stubbornness—or excessive conservatism—of a business leader to morph and adapt to the times and emerging market developments.”
In fact, he believes that small businesses need more structural adaptability than larger businesses that have the luxury of catching up when they’re late to embrace a new trend. “This wouldn’t be necessarily fatal for them—as it would be for you as a small business—as these larger companies have what I called ‘financial steroids.’” And this massive capital base helps them in a variety of ways. “It can help them artificially grow aggressively, making up for lost time, and even speeding past small businesses like yours, managing with slow-and-steady small organic growth.”
The Science Behind Adapting
Cultivating adaptability requires embracing uncertainty and ambiguity. And according to Drew Falkman, director of strategy at Modus Create, COVID-19 could be over in 6 months, or it may last for 2 more years. “The difference from a business standpoint could be existential, and there is a concept called ‘tolerance of ambiguity’ (TA), that can show how well you deal with ambiguity.”
And here’s why your tolerance level is so important. “Someone who is uncomfortable not knowing what the solution is will tend to ‘satisfice,’ or create something tolerable, just to feel less ambiguity.” While people with low TA will try to close the uncertainty gap, Falkman says someone with high TA will take the opposite approach. “This individual is likely to stay in the ambiguous situation, testing and waiting until things become more certain—and this person is in a prime position to capitalize on the ‘new normal’ first.”
Also, as much as we think we like predictable outcomes, Falkman says uncertainty can also help your business in another way, by learning. “A 2018 Yale University study done on monkeys gave them a choice: one with predictable awards or one where the awards became uncertain—and the monkeys chose the uncertain environment.
And so, using the pandemic as an example, Falkman says you can take 1 of 2 viewpoints. The first viewpoint is that the uncertainty will force you to lay off workers and struggle to survive. “However, if you recognize that this pandemic will produce new business models, and market leaders will emerge—and if you find the right formula, you can be at the top—it can inspire everyone at your company to work harder, dream harder, and become a stronger business.”
Below are some tips for cultivating an adaptability mindset.
Reframe Challenges as Opportunities for Growth
David Kolodny is a cofounder of Wilbur Labs, a San Francisco-based startup studio. Since 2016, his company has built and invested in 13 technology companies and plans to launch several new companies over the next year. Kolodny has seen first-hand how businesses can learn to adapt effectively.
“I am a firm believer that companies really grow and are defined by how they respond in times of crisis,” he says. “Both I, and our teams, have leaned into this time of COVID-19 as an opportunity to grow and overcome together.” And 5 years from now when they look back, he’s confident that this will be a memorable and defining moment of the company’s trajectory—and this helps him put everything into perspective.
When looking at your company’s opportunities for growth, Brown provides several examples to focus on. “You need to adapt your brand-customer interactions and marketing to cater to a fast-changing audience persona, courtesy of the pandemic.” In addition, Brown says it’s necessary to adapt to a customer base with dwindling purchasing power. “What’s more, you need to show high cognizance for the safety and wellness of a customer base exponentially keen on health due to the pandemic.” Each of these challenges is also an opportunity to create new and innovative ways to do business.
Separate What You Can Control From What You Can’t
Another key to cultivating adaptability is understanding that change is constant, and you won’t be able to control all of it. “While some things are outside of your control, there are guaranteed to be many things that are within your control,” Kolodny explains, and he recommends focusing on the latter. “This will give you confidence, allow you to make changes, and will ultimately lead you through times of uncertainty.”
The final key to developing an adaptability mindset is to expand your perspective. “The wider your perspective, the greater your ability to face changes and adapt,” Kolodny says. “There may be a lot of things that are critically important today—but how many of those things will be critically important down the line?” Instead of focusing your attention on issues that may not even matter a year or two later, he recommends taking a broad perspective. “This will help you face changes with much greater openness and confidence.”
Zooming out also means that you focus on external needs and drivers, instead of concentrating on internal factors. “It’s the difference between asking, ‘What does it take to succeed in this new context? What do my customers want/value?’ vs. ‘Here’s what I/we are used to and how a change is going to affect us or be painful,’” says Theresa Lina, a Silicon Valley business strategist and author of Be the Go-To: How to Own Your Competitive Market, Charge More, and Have Customers Love You For It.
“By fixating on outside drivers, your own discomfort with change gets displaced as you focus on giving your customers or whomever what they want.” Lina provides the example of a school system administrator who said that COVID-19 forced their district to implement their 5-year distance learning plan in a month. “Without a fixation on that external driving force, a large public school system would have never been able to overcome internal inertia and resistance to change that rapidly—and the same happens for businesses.”