Adaptation: A Key Skill to Thrive in the New Normal

The world has seen global depressions, economic recessions, business cycle downturns, technology bubble bursts, epidemics, and even pandemics over the last century. The stock markets around the world are driven by two primary factors: human greed and human fear. As I write this article, Russia is on the verge of invading Ukraine. And, Sri Lanka is almost bankrupt. Between working from home and ‘Work Near Home’ models, governments and corporations are just about trying everything to reimagine our workspace. Just as we think we are settling in, boom, there is an unsettling.

If you take a trip down ancestors’ history, you’ll realize that you are a product of generations of ancestors who learned not to stand out, not to rock the boat, and not to have a point of view. For the majority of mankind, as a species, we detest change. Translating this to today’s times, Tim Ferris best encapsulated it as “Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for mediocre.” “It’s lonely at the top,” he said, “and so, the level of competition is thus fiercest for ‘realistic’ goals.”

Recently, I watched a movie from the Marvel movies list. In it was a character Ultron who says, “I’m sorry, I know you mean well. You just didn’t think it through. You want to protect the world but you don’t want it to change. How is humanity saved if it’s not allowed to… evolve?” Isn’t this true?

With we disliking change, and yet, everything around us changing at the drop of a hat, a key skill that we need to build is to think long-term and develop a sense of adaptability to progress and evolve towards this long-term. In an unpredictable and uncertain world, one might argue that thinking long-term is foolish. You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, and how can you think and plan for say, even 3 years from now. Last year, during the pandemic, I had attended a virtual meeting where there was a book reading session conducted by Mr. Raghavan Neelakandan, President of Lucas Indian Service. As president of a specialist organization, when I asked him his views on creating a long-term vision, he abruptly responded by saying, “Long term is dead and gone. As long as I am alive, how do I continue to build my brand.” Clearly, his response came from a distorted view of the Covid pandemic. Earlier during his talk, he spoke about developing an adaptability index, which kind of contradicted his response to my question, because, without a guiding long-range vision, such an index would be purely reactive and inconsequential.

In an interview, Warren Buffett once said, “Every year undergraduate students from 40 universities visit me every year. If they absorb Mrs. B’s lessons, they need none from me.” Mrs. B that Buffett refers to was the late Mrs. Rose Blumkin, founder of Nebraska Furniture Mart. She was a migrant from Russia who founded the furniture company with just a US$500 loan from her brother and her paltry savings. By the time she made it onto Buffett’s radar in the early 80s, Nebraska Furniture Mart was the biggest furniture retailer in the US. Warren Buffett acquired a 90% stake in the business for about US$55 m in 1983. When Buffett shook hands with her in all but a one-page deal, it wasn’t the furniture business he was betting on. He was betting on the woman’s vision and the fruits of it.

Nebraska Furniture Mart was started by a woman, a few years after the great depression of 1929 when the average life expectancy was about 55 years. Today, with all the advances that medical and nutritional sciences have made, the average life expectancy is around 77 years. Clearly, we have started living almost 22 years longer than we would from back in the 1930s.

Dan Sullivan, author and founder of The Strategic Coach, teaches entrepreneurs not to focus on what they want to do this month, this quarter, or this year. Instead, he impresses the importance of building a vision of what you want to create within the next 25 years… According to his experience, both in his professional life and having coached hundreds of entrepreneurs over the last three decades, he was realized that thinking so long-term frees you from the clutches of realistic thinking and average ambitions and helps you to dream bigger than you’ve ever dreamed. He breaks up this 25-year vision into one hundred quarter periods, with each quarter accounting for just 1% of the overall 25 years. The key here is adaptation.

Another story is about Eicher Motors, and its CEO and MD, Mr. Siddhartha Lal. Lal joined the company when it had 15 business units and they were all underperforming. Upon taking over the reins, he had a choice — whether to continue supporting the 15 fledging business units or to focus on expanding and growing a couple of them. He had a vision for two business units — motorcycles and trucks — the ones he was most passionate about and chose to divest the other 13 business units. Today, Royal Enfield is a well-known motorcycle brand, not just in the UK and India, but all over the world. The story is not over yet because, during the COVID pandemic, when Lal was voted down by Eicher shareholders, the Royal Enfield employees union came out in public, seeking his re-appointment, stating he was good for the company and employees.

Forget perfection, focus on progress. Stop being reactive, nurture being adaptive. A child doesn’t walk the first time (researchers found that the toddlers fell on average 17 times an hour.) Fledglings don’t fly at their first attempt. A lion’s cub doesn’t even catch a warthog in its first few attempts at hunting. It all takes patience and effort. Patience and perseverance are muscles you need to build. Environments and circumstances will change all the time. The key is to be adaptable and nurture a long-range vision.


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