We live in an age of rapid, unpredictable change. Even before the pandemic, entire industries have been rendered obsolete by new, disruptive forces. In retail, for example, we’ve seen large, established brands like Blockbuster, Borders and Staples collapse after being undercut by online competitors.
As an Applied Futurist, I help businesses to look to the future, learn and adapt to upcoming challenges. I often use the qualities of top athletes as an analogy to explain how organisations can thrive in a changing world.
To become a more athletic organisation requires consistency, agility and adaptability, and great athletes have three key qualities that help them adapt to new challenges and stay ahead of the competition:
- They stay in shape and have the right physique for the game they are playing
- They can sense what’s coming, and how they need to adapt to new challenges
- They have the speed to make quick decisions and outwit their competitors
Developing these qualities in our organisations can help us to thrive in times of challenge and change.
All athletes must have the right shape and physique for the game they’re playing. And if that game changes, or their role is adjusted in any way, they’ll need to adapt to suit. For decades, most successful companies were lean, tightly integrated organisations, very specialised at doing a small range of things efficiently and profitably. But that doesn’t work today and organisations must be resilient, flexible and ready to change their capabilities to match shifts in the market.
They require the ability to change shape through a flexible structure of functions that can be re-combined to maximise profit. 15 years ago, Amazon realised their internal IT infrastructure was incredibly efficient and profitable, so they packaged it up as a marketable service to sell to other companies – creating the cloud computing service AWS. Capitalise on your strengths, but at the same time, look to your obvious weaknesses and address them swiftly.
The best athletes can sense what’s happening across the game. They don’t just concentrate on the ball at their feet or in their hands. They’re aware of which of their teammates are ready to catch a pass, and which are a bit too far behind. At the same time, they’re watching the exact positions of the opponents rushing towards them.
It’s the same with your business – you need to be able to see the industry-breaking changes coming on the horizon, and how these changes will interplay with your business’ unique strengths and weaknesses, so you can adapt in time.
In practical terms, even if you just devote one percent of your time to this kind of future-forward planning – that’s one day every six months – you can start to sense what’s coming, what it means for your business, and what you need to do to turn upcoming challenges into opportunities. Conduct research, uncover weak points, keep an eye on news and analysis. And always, always watch the competition.
Successful athletes adapt quickly: they need to be able to respond and make decisions fast. During a penalty, a goalkeeper has only fractions of a second to decide whether to dive left or right. Similarly, successful organisations must make quick decisions about new threats and opportunities, and then act rapidly – like the businesses who quickly pivoted to offer new services at the beginning of the pandemic.
So how can you move faster? The answer, in short, is to restructure how decision-making power is distributed in the organisation. As the goal-keeper dives, they are focused on that ball – they aren’t thinking about how they move their legs and arms along the way: they leave that to muscle memory, trusting that their body will support them, as they’ve trained it to do.
Accelerate decision-making by pushing more power to the edges of the organisation. Give people the training, resources and power to make operational decisions by themselves. This will improve the working lives of your employees and free up time for leaders to focus on the strategic decision-making.
Act, don’t just react
The last few years have seen markets and industries shaken by what was unexpected, but not unpredictable. Many of the organisations I work with find themselves in a state of constant firefighting, attempting to adapt to sudden events after they’ve happened – especially as the economic effects of the pandemic took hold. But it’s important to carve out time to look to the future, to act before change hits you – and empower your business with the shape, sense and speed to do so.