What do Blockbuster Video, Borders, Kodak and Woolworths have in common? They are all examples of companies who failed to adapt when unexpected shifts in the market occurred. Once seen as well-established and successful, they are now a poignant reminder of what happens when an organization isn’t willing, or able to respond to a volatile, uncertain and fast-changing environment.

Learning from what happened to those former market leaders means you can avoid a similar fate for your company. In my forthcoming book Rules of Engagement, I identify four critical elements of creating a highly-engaged work culture—or as I call it, the Purposeful Workplace Experience™. In my last article, I talked about Equivalence, and if you didn’t catch it, you can read it here. Today, we will look at the second component that will you get you through VUCA and out the other side: Adaptability.

Why deviating from the “plan” can be a good thing

In my corporate life, I was very familiar with my company’s planning cycles. The C-level would decide on a strategy or plan, then managers would create objectives for their teams, which ultimately would filter into targets to hit and individual performance objectives. Although never set in stone, the plan was pretty much fixed. At appraisal time, you could quite safely set training needs to meet the goals and provide financial incentives for meeting objectives. Everyone knew what they needed to do and it was a great approach in a predictable world.

Let’s move the hands on the clock forward to 2017; the speed at which companies, leaders, and their people are required to respond to global and market events is unprecedented.

As a consultant, I’ve noticed three common reactions to VUCA: (1) veer off plan, (2) use the plan as a shield, or (3) cling to hope that it is a temporary situation and things will go back to normal.

When someone veers off plan in an effort to provide a solution, they are often punished for doing so. It’s ironic that, as a result, the very attributes needed at that moment (creativity, problem-solving and initiative) will be cast aside and the person is unlikely to try again. Hiding behind the plan looks like this: “Yes I failed, but I did everything the plan said, so you can’t blame me.” It looks proactive and helpful on the surface, but it doesn’t help solve anything.  Interestingly, hope is often used as a tool by managers with themselves and their people. Unfortunately, hoping that things will calm down or that productivity tools or technology will fix it the problem, is part of what got us into this mess in the first place. (See a previous articles about productivity).

With that said, I’m going to ask you to bear with me and step outside of the ‘hope zone’ just long enough to read this article.

Can we agree that we can’t control or reverse the changes made because of VUCA? Because, if that were indeed possible, then we’d all be back to renting the latest DVD from Blockbuster on the weekend, while we take a Polaroid of our kids stuffing themselves with pick ‘n’ mix candy from Woolworths. What we can do instead is learn how to deal with what is happening. The degree to which you and your company are willing to flex and adapt is the difference-maker: it is a case of adapt or die.

The destination’s the same, how you get there might need to be different

I’m not suggesting you change your strategic objectives, merely that you be flexible about how you achieve them. This is more than scenario planning which is about the tactics of how to respond: “We want to get from A to Z, but if this happens we will head to S instead, and if this happens, we will head for M.” In contrast, Adaptability focuses on the context of the situation: “We still want to get to Z, but we may have to rethink how we get there, and it may take us longer.

Steps you can take to be prepared

So, what can you, as a leader, do to help your team be ready for VUCA?

  1. Mindset: Help your team make a fundamental change to their mindset: a roadblock will probably happen, and it’s OK to deviate from the plan to get around it.
  2. Look ahead: Learn to spot the signs before VUCA happens. To do that, we need to identify lead indicators for our industry which tell us what is about to happen.
  3. Shorter planning cycles: When the world can change overnight, waiting a year to replan just isn’t feasible. Consider creating quarterly or semi-annual plans, and schedule regular reviews.
  4. Simple steps like these will help your company avoid becoming a cautionary tale to others.

In the next article in this series, we’ll look at the third aspect of making yourself VUCA-proof.