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Survival of the most adaptable: Keeping pace is a matter of choices, changes and trust


October 26, 2009
By Paul Hogendoorn


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When my grandfather was a young boy, the roads were dirt, the primary mode of family transportation was the horse and buggy and most places he went he travelled on foot. By the time he died, the space shuttle routinely carried humans into space, the roads within earshot of his home were 12 lanes wide, and man setting foot on the moon was already old news. The rate at which changes occurred in his lifetime was unlike any experienced by any generation before — and it has only accelerated since.

Building or even just sustaining a business nowadays is not a matter of “survival of the fittest” or even “survival of the leanest” (as many today suggest): it’s a matter of “survival of the most adaptable.” Changes are occurring at an ever-increasing pace, so an organization’s demise is inevitable if its internal changes are not keeping up with the external changes. It’s only a matter of time.

Peter Senge wrote in his 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline, that “the ability to learn faster than your competitor may be the only sustainable competitive advantage.” So much has changed in the nearly 30 years since he wrote that book, but collectively, all the changes only fortify the truth of the statement.

Organizations today have to be able to adapt appropriately in order to survive — and to adapt more quickly than their competitors in order to thrive. All too often, the systems, structure and processes put in place in growing organizations end up thwarting the organization, and sometimes even strangling them. Their organizational structure, labour relationship and management style is based on tried and proven models of earlier times, led by generals that had fought in earlier wars.

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This whole discussion challenges one of my favorite historic quotes. Winston Churchill said, “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it,” suggesting we must not fail to learn from the past if we want to succeed in the future. But even that quote holds true in our rapidly changing times: if we examine our industries’ recent histories and their current conditions, we see example after example of successful companies that eventually fail because the rate of their internal changes did not keep up with the external changes. And some, including major industry icons, are on the brink today for the exact same reason.

In order to be able to make the right changes, an organization’s leadership group must be allowed to consider all the possibilities and choices. In order to be able to fairly and thoroughly consider all the choices, there must be a high level of trust. And trust, if it doesn’t already exist, takes time — lots and lots of time.

Organizations that have made trust an integral core value have a huge advantage in rapidly changing times. They have the opportunity to consider a broader range of choices and possibilities; more suggestions are made by more team members, with fewer (if any) limits and conditions imposed on them. Organizations that have the best options are the ones that make the best changes, and they make them most effectively.

No company or organization is perfect, but some have clearly worked harder to establish levels of trust than others: trust between them and their customers, with their suppliers, and of paramount importance, with their employees. Change brings with it levels of uncertainty and even fear, which trust helps alleviate. The Japanese automobile companies have historically done this better than their North American counterparts. Many Tier 1 vendors have told me over the years that the Big 3 are noted for their autocratic and ultimatum style demands; “if you won’t give us what we want, there is somebody else that certainly will.” The Japanese OEMs, on the other hand, are noted for their near absolute loyalty, often resulting in frustration for other Tier 1 vendors; “we had the lowest price. What do we have to do to get their business?”

The same holds true for employee relations. The Japanese OEMs are sitting at the same side of the table with their employees when facing new challenges or opportunities while the opposite is true for the North American OEMs. In these most challenging of times, the two biggest stake holders (the company and the employees) are still sitting on opposite sides of the table.

Survival requires adaptation. Adaptation means change. Change requires choices. And choices require trust.

Many things have changed since my grandfather’s days, far more than just the modes of transportation. But “change” was a constant occurrence in his life, and trust was earned over time. Even in times of rapid change like today, there are still some things that never change.

Paul Hogendoorn is president and co-founder of OES Inc. of London Ont., and OES-A Inc. of El Paso, Texas. You can reach him at phogendoorn@oes-inc.com.