It’s Good to Be a Pillar of Pliability

Our natural tendency is to seek a state of homeostasis. We like what we know. We crave comfort. Change is seen as a curse or something to avoid. This is the path of most yet, as Brett Cyrgalis writes in Golf’s Holy War, “Fifty species a day become extinct on Earth and we’re still here, because we adapt.” The saying suggests that evolution is ultimately “adapt or die.” It’s the same in business. We can either try or cry. Crying about change going on around us doesn’t help. Hiding from the change ensures our irrelevancy. Facing the change, acknowledging it, and working to flow with it is the path to growth. As Brandon Webb and John David Mann point out in Total Focus, “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.” In order to continue to survive (not just thrive) we need to be able to adapt. We either succumb to entropy or we escape it by changing. Woe is the status quo. To not just face the future but survive in it, we must be willing to change. Capability for change management is a core competency for individuals and businesses. Business guru Philip Kotler observed, “Long term is NOT about performance improvement. It is about forgetting the past and reshaping the business to compete more effectively in the future.” Another management thinker, Gary Hamel, observed, “The single biggest reason businesses fail is that they overinvest in what is.”

In Pound the Stone, Joshua Medcalf writes, “The funny thing about an anchor is that it actually keeps you stationed in the same place, and it keeps you secure, no matter what kind of storm you’re in the middle of.” Sure, being strong and holding firm in a storm sounds like a positive. We want strong roots, we want to be anchored to the world around us. Clinging to consistency can feel good. However, though our anchors can hold us steady, when things get too wild, they become a danger. In the greatest of storms, being anchored can sink our boat. When the waves rise up higher than our anchor line, our boat will be flooded and we’re less safe than if we were cut loose. When strong storms or tsunamis are anticipated, commercial boats owners flood to the docks in order to jump in their boats and sail into the storm to preserve their assets. Even the best of practices and firmest of principles can be shaken to the core with enough change. We must be prepared to adapt in order to survive.

Winston Churchill is credited with the quote, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” Excellence implies adaptation. It’s not being wedded to the status quo. It’s constantly looking for ways to change in order to innovate and grow. To be able to change and roll with the environment, context, and times all implies the ability to be pliable. Lao Tzu preceded Churchill noting, “Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force.” Martial Arts pioneer and moviestar Bruce Lee encouraged adaptability suggesting we try to be like water. Lee said, “Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it into a teacup, it becomes the teacup. … Be water, my friend.” Canadian mixed martial arts legend Georges St-Pierre was a fan of Bruce Lee. In The Way of the Fight, GSP writes, “I like to think I’m like water that adapts to its surroundings and eventually finds a way in.” Adaptability is an asset. The late Admiral James Stockdale gave a speech to navy pilots in 1990. It was about soaring to the heights of the hierarchy as pilots. He noted the contribution of skill and courage to the success of military pilots. However, Stockdale offered, “The bottom line is that nothing will be as important to climbing that pyramid as your ability to improvise on your feet, to adapt effortlessly, naturally, almost thoughtlessly, to changing circumstances.” Aviation, battle, and life varies. Each day differs. The environment shifts. Circumstances change. The best accept this and adjust to information as it arrives. They are not entrenched in a rigid perspective or plan. Adaptability is required to move with the forces of nature.

Robert Greene writes with rapper 50 Cent in The 50th Law of the value of being pliable. They write, “Those who follow the 50th Law are not afraid of change or chaos; they embrace it by being as fluid as possible. They move with the flow of events and then gently channel them in the direction of their choice, exploiting the moment. Through their mind-set, they convert a negative (unexpected events) into a positive (an opportunity).” Being pliable isn’t being passive. It’s not going with the flow like a dead fish. It’s accepting the current and working with it to seek improvements and actions that will preserve and promote your position. Al Pittampalli quotes a business leader writing in Persuadable, “’The willingness and the ability to change is essential,’ Coughlin remarked. ‘That doesn’t mean changing with the tides, going in and out all the time. You have to establish your principles and stick to them while also finding a way of making what you do relevant to the people you’re working with.’” We need to guard against the extremes of being excessively rigid or whimsical. We’re trying to find a balance along the lines of what Ray Dalio suggests as “strong values, held loosely.” We need principles and a plan, but we should also remain open to adapting with the times.

The US military adopted an acronym in the late 80s. VUCA is the nature of many hostile environments. It captures perfectly the state of affairs soldiers are embroiled within regularly. The concept followed the work of business leadership experts Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. The parallels between military, business, and our personal lives have only grown closer in recent years. VUCA represents Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. These variables lie at the heart of hostile environments. Volatility captures the speed and strength of changes. Volcanoes can be volatile emitting massive clouds of toxic gas and boiling lava. They can transition from almost inert to intense in short order. So, too, can changes occur swiftly and suddenly in our work worlds surprising even the most prepared of planners. Uncertainty reflects that surprise is the nature of today’s game. Predictability is almost pointless. Complexity is the inevitable result of increased everything. We have more people, technology, and globalization. Our interconnectedness is greater than ever. A small change in one part of the world can ripple across vast geographic space quickly roiling other systems. Combinatorial explosion makes things more difficult to manage. Ambiguity alerts us to the trouble associated with information overload. Obtaining objective evidence of things isn’t easy. We struggle to agree on the facts involved. We can measure more, but know less… Confusion between causation and correlation continues…

In 2017, Bill George, former Medtronic CEO and author of Discover Your True North, offered in a Forbes article an anecdote to VUCA which, in turn, had its own VUCA acronym to apply. We combat, according to George, volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity with vision, understanding, courage, and adaptability. George’s VUCA offers four areas upon which we can apply our energies. Common to each of these is they are within our control. George’s factors are being used by those that are managing well in these challenging times.

Who else has been good at this pillar? Who works to accelerate adaptability? The advice of Walt Disney is being embraced by those eager to adapt, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors, and doing new things because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” Adaptability seems to be an aspect of winning teams. Legendary college basketball coach, John Wooden, wrote, “If we fail to adapt, we fail to move forward.” Sport is about making adjustments. Adjustments to personnel, equipment, training, and tactics. It’s a constant effort to look to find better ways.

What can we do to give ourselves a chance at getting comfortable with VUCA? Start with recognizing that it’s here and isn’t going anywhere. We begin by clinging to the cliché that the only thing certain around here is uncertainty. If we’re feeling uneasy, that’s normal. It’s our body and mind’s reaction to VUCA. As we move from recognition, we can contemplate constructive actions. Like our examples of individuals and teams that are making progress moving forward, our abilities to adapt advance where we focus on what’s in our control. Peggy Baumgartner, Chief Learning Officer, at Canadian coaching firm, Third Factor, offers a few suggestions in a article, “Coaching in Uncertain Times.” Two of her tips include “think small” and “invest in relationships”.

The first means narrowing down our perspective on two levels. Both time and impact. Extended time horizons are less meaningful in a VUCA world. Visibility isn’t miles deep, the cloud ceiling is low. We must move slow. When driving on a clear day we can look well down the highway. However, when the fog is thick, we must slow down and focus on what’s immediately in front of us. Our world today is full of thick, dense fog. We’ve got to slow down and consider a much shorter time horizon. We begin by adapting our vision to a shorter time frame. Additionally, we want to worry about what’s immediately within our control. It’s less effective allocating energy towards lobbying to change industry regulations. Much better to focus on contacting your existing customers. Bring your efforts closer to home and focus on this month, this week, and today. Flee five year plans as fast as you can. Are expectations for your work clear today? Soon we’ll walk tall by acting small. We begin not looking at the outside world, but right here and right now. We lean on Mother Teresa’s advice, “if each of us would only sweep our own doorstep, the whole World would be clean.” Our start is to avoid worrying about Allen in accounting, Louise in legal, and Susie in sales. Instead, we should be working to turn our focus to our own efforts and our own role. What is it for which I’m responsible? How can I make my actions matter today? In what direction do I want to move the chains? Focus your vision closer to home.

Concurrent with narrowing instead of broadening our perspective, we can work to reinforce our relationships. Seek understanding of and with others. Cultivate your communication skills. Nurture your connections and invest in relationships. We want to belong to our group. Baumgartner encourages us to not just check in but find ways to consciously communicate with team members daily. She introduces us to Coach Roy Rana of the Sacramento Kings who challenges himself to make 30 seconds daily for every player. Coach Rana commits to finding a small slice of real time to devote to being with and communicating in some way with each team member. When we’re more connected with our close colleagues, we’re more committed to the cause. With our connection and commitment, we’re open to change and incented to adapt to our circumstances.

When change, chaos, or surprise show up on your front doorstep, do you welcome them in or hide behind the door? Do you consider yourself adaptable? How often do you initiate changes in your life? To remain properly pliable implies humility. We need to welcome a sense of uncertainty in our understanding. Where we think we have things figured out, we’ll close our mind to looking for improvements and be less likely to see change coming. We want to embrace being a student of life. As Cherie Carter-Scott writes in If Life is a Game, These Are the Rules, “You learn the lesson of flexibility once you are able to flow with what is coming next rather than clinging to the way things are presently. Paradigms change over time, and so must you.” In The CEO Next Door, authors Elena Botelho and Kim Powell share four insights displayed by those they identify as world class leaders. One of these traits is the ability to “adapt boldly to change.” So, too, it is with other groups. In Simple Rules, Donald Sull and Kathleen Eisenhardt note that “The Jesuit Leadership recognized the importance of flexibility, and sought out candidates who exemplified this trait.” Those that remain in the game and give themselves the opportunity to get better learn to manage the discomfort of uncertainty. In End Malaria, Michael Bungay Stanier notes, “Uncertainty isn’t an innately fun emotion, but the ability to become more comfortable with it and even embrace it over time is mission-critical in the quest to create anything that matters.” It takes courage to be pliable, but the positives are worth it. Adopt the ambition to become adept at adapting.