Adapt or Cry

We have enjoyed purchasing a number of vehicles from a particular car dealership over the years. Throughout 2019, the business invested heavily in a substantial renovation of their entire facility. The service area was expanded. The showroom was to become almost four times the size of the old building. Much of the building’s exterior was converted to glass and became more noticeable from the street where passing cars could see what was being offered. The updates were only completed in 2020. Yes, the investment and efforts were finalized just as COVID kicked in. Neither staff nor customers were able to derive much benefit from the new facilities. It seemed like the worst possible time for these renovations to be completed. It would have been very easy for ownership to complain about their pain. Their business was, effectively, being punished for making an investment in servicing their customers.

Ted Rubin said, “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” We can sit around hoping for the clouds to clear or we can pull out our umbrellas, get outside, and do something. Hope is not a strategy. When faced with change or a challenge we can argue or adapt. Wallowing in their misery is what this dealership didn’t do. Instead, they accepted where the world now was and adapted. Life moved on, as did their business. Our car dealership began with the end in mind. They knew their goal remained to sell vehicles.

Two steps associated with traditional dealer delivery programs include a walk through the vehicle as well as a tour of the dealership. Both of these were now done remotely through video or zoom. The dealership then step by step walked through its traditional purchasing experience and looked for ways to meet the market where it was, remote. If you had a trade-in, now it could be evaluated from a distance. Just send the dealers some pictures, answer some questions, and they’ll offer a market price for your car. Prior to delivery, a dealer looks for payment. They took the financing process and payment exchange online. Even test drives can be done without having to come inside the dealership. The dealership encouraged interested purchasers to schedule an appointment for a test drive online. When they showed up for their appointment, the car was idling, warmed up, and ready to go for them. Details of a driver’s license were exchanged online and it was easy and seamless for customers to enjoy a test drive. Additionally, they worked hard to make their showroom virtual. Videos of both used cars and new vehicle inventory were prepared. Sales staff sought to Zoom or Facetime with clients. From the desired outcome, the dealership’s ability to define each step of the old way allowed them to come up with new ways of adapting to the world as it now was. Adapting was no accident. It was a proactive pursuit of change to accommodate the changed external environment. They worked to meet the market where it now was. The way things had been done was quickly discarded. Car sales continued, just differently.

The experience of having a stick thrown in the spokes of strategic plans like this dealership felt has likely been experienced by countless businesses over the past two years. Yet, some have pounced on the pandemic as an opportunity to adjust while others have paused, sticking to the way things were, hoping for normal to return. No question COVID has thrown a wrench in the way many of us conduct business. There are those of us that considered it a temporary blip. Where we saw COVID as an aberration, we thought things would settle down and we would revert to normal in short order. Regardless of what restrictions or lockdowns were in place, many of us figured that things would bounce back to what we were used to. This perspective would reflect a bias to the status quo. Those of us with this belief weren’t motivated to make meaningful changes to how we operate. Instead, our conversations revolved around battening down the hatches and riding out the storm. Again, the focus is about preserving and maintaining the machine ensuring the business is in a position to get back to business as usual in time.

On the other hand, others were open to meeting the market where it now was. In order to manage, people with this perspective worked to adapt. Our car dealership reflects this posture. Where they had invested and what they had thought strategically didn’t matter. The market had moved. Who cares why. Adaptation was a constructive approach to accepting the world as it now was and working within the associated constraints. Founder of Japan’s Honda, Soichiro Honda, offers a difference behind those that fight change and those that face it. Honda suggested a fundamental difference between Japanese and American companies in the 80s noting, “When Congress passes new emission standards, we hire fifty more engineers and GM hires fifty more lawyers.” Whereas, tinkerers, designers, thinkers, and doers like Japan’s Honda proactively pursue new ways of doing things, too many of us defer to a much more cautious approach. Instead, of trying to improve, we try to maintain. We seek to not rock the boat, run from risk, and come up with lawyers or other administrative layers to insulate ourselves from change. The extremes of working to avoid adapting are seen in the example of Volkswagen and its emissions scandal from several years back. They appeared to do exactly as Mr. Honda noted. Instead of using engineering to evolve a better emissions solution, they strategized with their internal brain trusts to cheekily cheat the regulations. A related difference Honda noted was that Japanese companies encouraged input from frontline staff whereas North American companies tended to reserve decision making to the boardroom. As a result, Japanese companies were more flexible and made decisions on real information.

Innovation and adaptation are similar but different. Perhaps, we can consider them as the inverse of each other. To innovate is to find a better way. Whether market conditions or the state of the world change or not, innovating is improving on something that is. Where successful, innovations change the market. That is, users now adapt in order to adopt the innovation. Innovation starts with the business and is accepted by the consumer. This can be contrasted with adaptation which is a response to a change in external forces. For a business to adapt, they are finding ways to meet the market where it now is as opposed to where it was. Some change in customer demand or external operating influences has occurred which disrupts how a business was doing things. As a result of this disruption, the business can either change or suffer. Adapting reflects steps taken to change in order to positively meet these changes resulting in continued success of the business.

Are there characteristics shared by those that are advanced at adapting? We offer four characteristics that may accelerate our ability to adapt. A sense of agency. Businesses that are proactive instead of being reactive believe that they influence the environment in which they operate. Their actions matter always or MAMA. This self-belief leads to a Bias for Action or BFA.  Third, action is taken with externally oriented focus. Organizations look outwards to see how they fit into both the economic environment as well as the needs of their customers. These three steps are fueled by the fourth, key component associated with adapting, curiosity.

In a Vanity Fair interview with former New York City Mayor and entrepreneur, Michael Bloomberg, Bloomberg responds to a question asking about the trait to which he most attributes his success. Bloomberg’s response, “curiosity.” His willingness to observe and question the world around him led to seeing things others didn’t. Questions, questions, and more questions. Why are we doing this? What is going on out there? How can we improve what we do? How can we help? Mike Michalowicz in a recently released book, Get Different, shares the experience of a coffee shop that was forced to close the doors of its two locations. The owner faced the decision to either hang on and hope for normal to return or take actions to create a new future. Michalowicz writes, “Jacob chose option two… he surveyed his clients.” The survey included questions. Questions about what were the needs of customers. Jacob, the coffee shop owner was scanning for what his customers wanted now. He wasn’t sending coupons or talking about what he was doing. Michalowicz writes, “through that survey, Jacob learned that his clients were concerned about health, and that they wanted to be uplifted. His clients also noted that they missed the ritual of getting a delicious Cottonwood Coffee drink.” From these learnings, in three weeks, the coffee shop went from two closed locations to having a new product being sold through an online store. A cold brew coffee infused with vitamin D3 and promoted as an immune booster became a hit. Michalowicz writes, “Sales went up and allowed Cottonwood Coffee to weather the COVID-19 shutdowns long enough to reopen its stores.” They didn’t just survive, the business generated greater profits on lower revenues than in the past. As importantly, the owner learned that he was able to handle adversity through adapting. Michalowicz writes, “During those first months of the pandemic, Jacob learned something he couldn’t have seen before: How to reimagine his business.” The owner told Michalowicz, ‘I feel more in control than I ever have before… I can adapt to whatever happens and whatever I need by reimagining it.’”

By reaching out and asking questions, Jacob’s coffee shops were able to not just survive lockdowns but make more money than they had in the past. Moreover, the owner developed confidence that through a culture of curiosity future challenges could be met. Adaptation has been reflected in how we’ve worked to try to continue to conduct commerce in our new world. Car sales, realtors, restaurants, retail, and coffee shops are a few industries where adapting was done by some quicker than others. We’re driven to adapt in business, just as we are in nature, by a drive to survive. It’s necessity that leads us to believe adaptation is an imperative. An ironclad rule of business is that where what we’ve been doing is no longer working for the marketplace we have two choices, we can sit around wishing for the good old days, waiting for things to return. Or, we can create new days that offer opportunity to sell more. Adaptation is the approach of the latter. A separate positive of significant disruptions to a marketplace is that our go to tactic of looking around to see what others are doing becomes largely useless. With sudden changes, all are now in the same boat. We can’t copy. We must change or collapse. We don’t have the luxury of waiting to see what others will do.

To assess whether your organization’s perspective is about preserving the status quo or being open to adapting, reflect on the following questions. In your strategic conversations, what is the balance of discussion between where the world is and where you are? Is the talk centered more around your customer’s experience or do they focus on your financial performance? If our default is on our organization and where we are, this suggests we’re interested in preserving the status quo. To adjust and get better at adapting we want to consciously create a culture of curiosity that explores our external environments.

Though an approach of adapting may not feel like our default, it’s as natural to us as can be. Gail Sheehy in her book Passages puts it succinctly, “If we don’t change, we don’t grow. If we don’t grow, we are not really living.” Adapting is at the heart of who we are as individuals and as businesses.  Adapting is what humans do best. It’s how we’ve worked our way to the top of the food chain through many years of evolution. As Michalowicz notes, “it’s all about finding dinner and not being dinner.” Business guru, Tom Peters, felt so strongly about the need to apply the ideas of adaptation to business that he had t-shirts made up with the words “Distinct or Extinct” emblazoned on them. Peters believed that we’re either working to differentiate ourselves or our businesses are on the road to becoming extinct. In their book, Total Focus, Brandon Webb and John David Mann write, “When disruption happens, you can resist it, fight it, complain about it, even try to pretend it isn’t happening… and doing any or all of the above will kill you as dead as Blockbuster, Polaroid, or Borders. Or, you can embrace it—and pivot.” Change is constant. We can try to fight it, flee it, or face it. We can cry or we can try. To face it, we need to look in its direction. We need to open our eyes, look at the world as it is, and embrace our place in order to get better at adapting.

“The only way that we can live is if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn.” —C. JoyBell C.