In Uncertain Times, the Best Strategy Is Adaptability
Companies everywhere labor under the illusion that the key to a great strategy is a good handle on the future. But meteorologist Edward Lorenz demonstrated that small differences can have massive consequences or none at all, which means that unless you have a perfect, complete picture of existing conditions, forecasting the future with any precision is impossible. Instead, advises Bain’s Michael Mankins, companies should focus on making themselves better able to cope with unexpected changes. For strategy, that involves instilling an adaptive mindset among managers, building in flexibility into operations, creating dynamic plans.
Senior executives often lament, “If we only had better forecasts, we could devise better plans.” They pressure their teams to come up with more accurate projections for how their markets will evolve, competitors will respond, and consumers will react — thinking that forecast precision is the key to defining winning strategies.
But attempting to develop precise forecasts is a fool’s errand. Meteorologist Edward Lorenz proved this nearly 60 years ago when he popularized “the butterfly effect.” He suggested: “A butterfly flaps its wings in the Amazonian jungle and subsequently a storm ravages half of Europe.” While this statement is often interpreted as meaning “small things can have big impacts,” Lorenz’s insight was actually far more profound: In complex systems, small changes in one variable may have no effect or massive ones, and it is virtually impossible to predict which will turn out to be the case.
Before Lorenz’s work, forecasters assumed that an approximate specification of initial conditions would yield an approximate prediction of future outcomes. Lorenz’s modelling proved that assumption to be entirely false. He found that without a perfect delineation of initial conditions, predictions are useless.
Today, the butterfly effect is almost universal. Our world is more complex and interconnected than ever before. Increasing globalization, advances in telecommunications technology, shifts in consumer preferences, geopolitical instability, and countless other factors have made the future largely unpredictable. Capturing all these relationships in a reliable forecast is impracticable.
So, what should executives do? In Bain’s work with clients, we advise executives operating under extreme uncertainty to make sure that their strategy-making is characterized by a willingness to adapt, inbuilt flexibility, and dynamic planning.
Willingness to Adapt
Stephen Hawking is famously credited with saying: “Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” If it is impossible to predict what is around the corner, then the secret to success is adapting quickly to what appears.
The Covid-19 pandemic serves as testimony to the importance of adaptability. In early 2020, almost no company’s strategic plan forecast the impact that the global pandemic would have on business. The most successful companies (e.g., Zoom, Amazon, GrubHub, Disney) quickly adapted to the impact that work-from-home orders and other restrictions placed on workers and consumers. Some expanded capacity in response to the sudden surge in demand; others altered their delivery model to serve customers in new and different ways.
Less successful enterprises (say, most commercial airlines and hotel operators) could not — or did not — adapt. These companies saw their revenues and profits plummet. If Covid-19 has taught us anything it’s the importance of being able to pivot quickly in response to sudden changes in the external environment.
In volatile times, flexibility has enormous value. As an analogy, consider sailing. In choppy waters, sailing upwind can be extremely challenging — steering as close as possible to the wind can mean pounding into the waves, which slows the boat down. Instead, falling off of the wind can give you a better angle to the waves and allow you to build up speed. While longer by distance, this maneuver is almost always faster, largely because it’s more flexible.
A few industries have already recognized the value of flexibility in the face of extreme volatility and altered their strategies accordingly. Take aluminum production. The future returns on capital projects, such as investments in new smelter capacity, depend upon highly volatile prices for electricity and aluminum. Price uncertainty means that there may be times when the cash inflows from aluminum sales are insufficient to cover production costs, or (stated differently) lower than the revenues that could be derived from the sale of co-generated or contracted power. Most aluminum producers have strategies that enable them to temporarily suspend production during periods of high energy prices and sell available power to the grid. The few aluminum producers that have stuck with rigid, production-only plans have experienced dramatically lower returns than those opting for more flexible strategies.
Another example: sourcing strategy. Today, supply chains are being assailed by a host of exogenous factors. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance, has cut-off the flow of raw materials such as titanium, nickel, and neon. China’s zero-Covid policy has temporarily halted manufacturing in some sectors, hampering the production of everything from automobiles to smart phones. Companies with flexible supply networks, capable of sourcing from multiple suppliers in different regions, have found it easier to cope with these — and other — disruptions. Those with rigid supply chains continue to struggle in the current tumultuous environment.
In an unpredictable world, it might be tempting to throw up your hands and give up on planning altogether. But great performance is rarely the result of happenstance. It requires a direction, even if it isn’t possible to define the exact path.
To better cope with extreme volatility in crafting strategy, companies must change the way they approach strategic planning. They must evolve from a static, plan-then-do model to a dynamic and continuous approach to strategic decision-making and execution.
Dell Technologies was one of the first to adopt this new model shortly after Michael Dell took the company private in October 2013. The company shifted from a traditional planning model — where managers developed a fixed strategic plan each year — to an approach focused on continuously identifying and making critical decisions. This new model — combined with new techniques for making strategic decisions under uncertainty — has enabled Dell Technologies to increase its operating profits by more than four-fold since 2013. Leadership at Dell did not give-up on planning. Instead it adjusted the company’s model to be more fit-for-purpose, given the increasingly uncertain world of technology.
Today’s unpredictable age demands new notions of strategy. As I argue here (and in an HBR article with my Bain colleague Mark Gottfredson, Strategy-Making in Turbulent Times) rigid plans — based on deterministic forecasts — must be discarded and replaced with a more dynamic and decision-focused approach. Flexibility and adaptability must move to the forefront of leadership’s thinking. Otherwise, too many businesses will fall victim to the vagaries of the butterfly effect.
Want to Succeed as an Entrepreneur? 14 Traits to Cultivate Now
If you had to choose one trait that you believed was the most necessary in order to succeed as an entrepreneur, what would it be and why? How can aspiring entrepreneurs cultivate it?
These answers are provided by Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most successful young entrepreneurs. YEC members represent nearly every industry, generate billions of dollars in revenue each year, and have created tens of thousands of jobs. Learn more at yec.co.
1. The Ability to Problem-Solve
The one trait I would say is the most important to entrepreneurs is the ability to creatively problem-solve. Sometimes, solutions to business problems aren’t obvious and you have to find an out-of-the-box solution. That can be a real challenge because most people are taught to color within the lines.
– Baruch Labunski, Rank Secure
You need courage, resolve and strength of character to withstand the ebbs, flows and failures that lead to successful business. The best way to get this is through experience. I’ve seen a lot of young entrepreneurs with more grit than their older counterparts, especially when they had customer service jobs and worked their way up the ladder to experience different seats in the company.
– Givelle Lamano, Oakland DUI Attorneys
One of the most essential traits an entrepreneur can possess is flexibility. You need to be able to change your approach in response to market conditions, customer feedback and what any partners or investors want at any given time. Being flexible also means looking at “failure” as a signal to make changes rather than as a permanent obstacle.
Aspiring entrepreneurs should be fearless. It’s fear that often prevents you from grabbing new opportunities, as new entrepreneurs are unable to decide what’s best for them or how a particular decision would affect them. Well, you won’t know unless you try. So, be quick with your decisions. Preparedness is great and all, but if you’re afraid to make a move, someone else will — and will likely succeed.
– Chris Klosowski, Easy Digital Downloads
To be successful as an entrepreneur, you need to focus on developing your social skills. When you have strong social skills, it becomes easier for you to build strong relationships with your customers, investors or anyone you think is important to your business. Good social skills make you a better communicator and help you make others feel secure so they connect with you on a deeper level.
One trait you need to succeed as an entrepreneur is determination. You’ll encounter people who don’t like your idea. There will be times when clients or investors reject you. Your first project idea may never see the light of day. You need to have the drive to move past these unfortunate situations if you want to find success.
Decisiveness is the main trait any successful entrepreneur needs to cultivate. From making decisions about the budget or day-to-day communication, maintaining the ability to decide and decide quickly remains imperative. I use mental models like Occam’s razor to run my life. For example, when presented with two options, I choose the simplest and I get a lot of significant work done.
– Libby Rothschild, Dietitian Boss
8. A Realistic Mindset
Be realistic! An entrepreneur’s career is full of ups and downs, which are part of the learning process — and that’s a fact. Keeping your feet on the ground will save you much frustration when things don’t go the way you want. Instead, learn your lessons and keep moving. This will also help you to consider and prepare for multiple scenarios while adjusting along the way.
In order to be an entrepreneur, you must have some moxie. Being outspoken, direct, resilient and having the ability to persevere is something that most entrepreneurs have in common. You have moxie if you can get up after failing. Aspiring entrepreneurs can cultivate it by focusing on confidence. Stand up for what you believe in and don’t let others’ opinions or perceptions get in your way.
– Jennifer A Barnes, Optima Office, Inc.
10. The Ability to Follow Long-Term Plans
The ability to follow and execute on a long-term plan — meaning multiple years — without being sidetracked by mirages along the way or discouraged by inevitable ups and downs is so important. This requires you to learn multiple skills, including attention to detail, deep work and strategic vision (as opposed to tunnel vision, which trips up many entrepreneurs).
– Andrew Schrage, Money Crashers Personal Finance
11. A Willingness to Keep Learning
If you want to succeed as an entrepreneur, you should have an open mind toward learning. It’s important for you to realize that learning is an ongoing process. It can help you develop new skills that in turn can help you stay ahead of your competitors at all times.
– Thomas Griffin, OptinMonster
12. A Self-Reflective Mind
One trait that can help aspiring entrepreneurs succeed is self-reflection. Embracing your mistakes and learning from them is the only way an entrepreneur can grow and be better than ever before. However, one can’t cultivate this skill by enrolling in a particular program. You have to have an open mind, give yourself the freedom to make mistakes and foster the courage to learn from them.
– Stephanie Wells, Formidable Forms
Resilience is one of the most important traits you can develop as an entrepreneur. The journey is going to have high highs and low lows, and it will be your ability to push through and persevere during this time that will be the difference between success and failure. To develop resilience, develop a positive mindset, build a strong support system, understand your purpose and look after yourself.
– Zane Stevens, Protea Financial
14. The Ability to Thrive on Ambiguity
The cornerstone of entrepreneurial success is in the ability to accept and thrive on ambiguity. I have found that navigating the unpredictable landscape of business ventures requires you to possess a flexible mindset that can accommodate constant change and capitalize on emerging opportunities. Always stay updated with the latest developments and treat every change as an opportunity to grow.
The Art of Risk-Taking: Lessons from Successful Entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurship is a high-risk endeavor. Starting a new business takes bravery, resilience, and a willingness to accept risks. Many successful entrepreneurs attribute their success to calculated risks and pushing themselves outside their comfort zones.
In this article, we will explore the art of risk-taking and the lessons we can learn from successful entrepreneurs.
1. Understand the Importance of Risk-Taking
Taking risks is an essential component of entrepreneurship. It is tough to develop and produce anything new without taking risks. Risk-taking is necessary for growth and progress, as successful entrepreneurs recognize. They also recognize that not every risk will pay off, but the potential rewards make the effort worthwhile.
2. Do Your Research
Before taking any risks, it is important to do your research. Successful entrepreneurs understand the importance of gathering as much information as possible before making a decision. This includes researching the market, competition, and potential customers. By doing your research, you can make informed decisions and minimize your risks.
3. Network Effectively
Networking is an essential part of entrepreneurship. Successful entrepreneurs understand the importance of building relationships with potential investors, customers, and other entrepreneurs. They attend events and conferences, participate in industry groups, and use social media to expand their network and create new opportunities.
4. Stay Committed
Entrepreneurship is a long and challenging journey. Successful entrepreneurs understand the importance of staying committed to their goals and vision, even when faced with obstacles and setbacks. They stay focused on their end goal and are willing to put in the time and effort necessary to achieve it.
5. Collaborate with Others
Entrepreneurship is often a team effort. Successful entrepreneurs understand the value of collaborating with others and building strong partnerships. They seek out individuals who bring complementary skills and expertise to the table and work together to achieve a shared vision.
6. Surround Yourself with Supportive People
Entrepreneurship can be a lonely journey. It is important to surround yourself with supportive people who believe in you and your vision. Successful entrepreneurs understand the value of having a support system and seek out mentors, advisors, and other entrepreneurs who can offer guidance and encouragement.
7. Set Realistic Goals
Taking risks is essential for entrepreneurship, but it is important to set realistic goals. Successful entrepreneurs understand the importance of setting achievable goals and breaking them down into smaller, more manageable steps. By setting realistic goals, entrepreneurs can reduce the risk of failure and stay motivated throughout the journey.
8. Stay Flexible
Entrepreneurship is a constantly evolving journey. Successful entrepreneurs understand the importance of staying flexible and adapting to changing circumstances. They are open to new ideas and are willing to pivot when necessary to stay ahead of the curve.
9. Learn from Feedback
Feedback is a valuable tool for entrepreneurs. Successful entrepreneurs seek out feedback from customers, mentors, and advisors and use it to refine their ideas and improve their products or services. They understand that feedback is not a personal attack, but rather an opportunity to grow and improve.
10. Take Care of Yourself
Entrepreneurship can be a stressful and demanding journey. It is important to take care of yourself both physically and mentally. Successful entrepreneurs prioritize their health and well-being and make time for self-care activities such as exercise, meditation, and spending time with loved ones. By taking care of themselves, entrepreneurs can stay energized and focused throughout their entrepreneurial journey.
11. Take Action
Successful entrepreneurs do not let fear hold them back. They take action and move forward, even when they are unsure of the outcome. They understand that taking action is the only way to achieve their goals and make their vision a reality.
12. Take Calculated Risks
While taking risks is important, successful entrepreneurs also know the importance of taking calculated risks. They carefully assess the potential risks and rewards before making a decision, and have a backup plan in case things don’t go as expected.
13. Trust Your Gut
While research is important, successful entrepreneurs also trust their gut instincts. They understand that sometimes you have to take a leap of faith and trust your intuition. Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple, once said, “Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become.”
14. Embrace Failure
Taking risks inevitably leads to failure at times. Successful entrepreneurs understand that failure is not the end, but rather an opportunity to learn and grow. They embrace failure and use it as a chance to improve and refine their ideas.
The art of risk-taking is a critical component of entrepreneurship. Successful entrepreneurs understand the importance of taking risks, doing their research, trusting their instincts, embracing failure, taking action, and surrounding themselves with supportive people.
Aspiring entrepreneurs can boost their chances of success and make their entrepreneurial aspirations a reality by adhering to these guidelines.
Rekindling a Sense of Community at Work
For decades, we’ve been living lonelier, more isolated lives. As our social connectedness has decreased, so has our happiness and mental health. And with more aspects of our lives becoming digital, it has reduced our opportunities for everyday social interaction. The nature of our work, in particular, has shifted.
In 2014, Christine and Energy Project CEO Tony Schwartz partnered to learn more about what stands in the way of being more productive and satisfied at work. One of the more surprising findings was that 65% of people didn’t feel any sense of community at work.
That seemed costly (and sad!), motivating Christine to write Mastering Community, since lonelier workers report lower job satisfaction, fewer promotions, more frequent job switching, and a higher likelihood of quitting their current job in the next six months. Lonelier employees also tend to perform worse.
During the pandemic, many of us became even more isolated. Community, which we define as a group of individuals who share a mutual concern for one another’s welfare, has proven challenging to cultivate, especially for those working virtually. To learn more, we conducted a survey with the Conference for Women in which we asked nearly 1,500 participants about their sense of community at work before and since the pandemic and found it has declined 37%. When people had a sense of community at work, we found that they were 58% more likely to thrive at work, 55% more engaged, and 66% more likely to stay with their organization. They experienced significantly less stress and were far more likely to thrive outside of work, too.
People can create community in many ways, and preferences may differ depending on their backgrounds and interests. Here are several ways companies have successfully built a sense of community at work that leaders can consider emulating at their own organizations.
Create mutual learning opportunities.
After creating an internal university for training years ago, Motley Fool, the stock advisor company, realized that the teachers got even more out of it than the students. The feedback led to a vibrant coaching program in which about 10% of employees act as a coach to other employees. For many, being a coach is a favorite part of their job. Chief People Officer Lee Burbage said, “When you think of progress and growth in a career, your mind tends to stay boxed into ‘What is my current role? What am I doing?’…we really try to encourage side projects…taking on a teaching role, taking on a coaching role, being a leader in one of our ERGs, that sort of thing.”
Burbage went on to describe how the company helped foster a sense of community by enabling employees to learn from one another in a less formal way:
We’ve had incredible fun and incredible effectiveness going out to [employees] and saying, “Hey, is anybody really good at something and would be interested in teaching others?” All it takes is for them to set up a Zoom call. We’ve had everything from DJ class to butchering class. How to make drinks, how to sew. Tapping into your employees and skills they may already have that they’d be excited to teach others, especially in the virtual world, that makes for a great class and creates an opportunity again for them to progress and grow and meet new people.
Tap into the power of nostalgia.
Research suggests that shared memories from past positive events and accomplishments, such as birthday dinners, anniversaries, retreats, or weekend trips, endure and can help sustain morale. Nostalgia can help counteract anxiety and loneliness, encourage people to act more generously toward one another, and increase resilience. Research has also shown that when people engage in nostalgia for a few minutes before the start of their workday, they’re better at coping with work stresses.
Come up with ways to bring employees together for memorable events outside of work. Christine recently spoke at the law firm Jones Walker’s anniversary leadership celebration offsite. After meetings, we headed to the Washington Nationals ballpark, where we toured the field, feasted on ballpark favorites, and had the opportunity to take batting practice.
Eat or cook together.
In 2015, Jeremy Andrus, who took over Traeger Grills as CEO in 2014, decided to reboot a toxic culture and moved the corporate headquarters to Utah. There, Andrus worked to create a positive physical environment for his employees. As part of that, employees cooked breakfast together every Monday morning and lunch Tuesday through Friday. As he put it, “Preparing food for and with colleagues is a way of showing we care about one another.” According to pulse surveys in 2020, Traeger Grills employees rated the culture a nine out of 10 on average, with 91% reporting a feeling of connection to the company’s vision, mission, and values.
Cooking and eating together isn’t just a community builder. Researchers conducted interviews at 13 firehouses, then followed up by surveying 395 supervisors. They found that eating together had a positive effect on job performance. The benefits were likely reinforced by the cooperative behaviors underlying the firefighters’ meal practices: collecting money, shopping, menu planning, cooking, and cleaning. Taken together, all these shared activities resulted in stronger job performance.
Find ways to bring employees together over a meal. For example, invite the team to a lunch of takeout food in a conference room, or organize a walk to a nearby restaurant for a brainstorming session or a chance to socialize. You could also ask team members to cook an elaborate meal together at an offsite as a means of figuring out how to work collaboratively on something outside of their usual range.
Plug into your local community.
Kim Malek, the cofounder of ice cream company Salt & Straw, forges a sense of meaning and connectedness among employees, customers, and beyond to the larger communities in which her shops are located. From the beginning, Kim and her cousin and cofounder, Tyler Malek, “turned to their community, asking friends — chefs, chocolatiers, brewers, and farmers — for advice, finding inspiration everywhere they looked.”
Kim and Tyler worked with the Oregon Innovation Center, a partnership between Oregon State University and the Department of Agriculture, to help companies support the local food industry and farmers. Kim Malek told Christine that every single ice cream flavor on their menu “had a person behind it that we worked with and whose story we could tell. So that feeling of community came through in the actual ice cream you were eating.”
On the people side, Salt & Straw partners with local community groups Emerging Leaders, an organization that places BIPOC students into paid internships, and The Women’s Justice Project (WJP), a program in Oregon that helps formerly incarcerated women rejoin their communities. They also work with DPI Staffing to create job opportunities for people with barriers like disabilities and criminal records, and have hired 10 people as part of that program.
In partnership with local schools, Salt & Straw holds an annual “student inventors series” where children are invited to invent a new flavor of ice cream. The winner not only has their ice cream produced, but they read it to their school at an assembly, and the entire school gets free ice cream. This past year, Salt & Straw held a “rad readers” series and invited kids to submit their wildest stories attached to a proposed ice cream flavor. Salt & Straw looks for ways like this to embed themselves in and engage with the community to help people thrive. It creates meaning for their own community while also lifting up others.
Create virtual shared experiences.
Develop ways for your people to connect through shared experiences, even if they’re working virtually. Sanjay Amin, head of YouTube Music + Premium Subscription Partnerships at YouTube, will share personal stories, suggest the team listen to the same album, or try one recipe together. It varies and is voluntary. He told Christine he tries to set the tone by being “an open book” and showing his human side through vulnerability. Amin has also sent his team members a “deep question card” the day before a team meeting. It’s completely optional but allows people to speak up and share their thoughts, experiences, and feelings in response to a deep question — for example:
- If you could give everyone the same superpower, which superpower would you choose?
- What life lesson do you wish everyone was taught in school?
He told Christine, “Fun, playful questions like these give us each a chance to go deep quickly and understand how we uniquely view the world” and that people recognized a shared humanity and bonding.
EXOS, a coaching company, has a new program, the Game Changer, that’s a six-week experience designed to get people to rethink what it means to sustain performance and career success in the long run. Vice President Ryan Kaps told Christine, “Work is never going back to the way it was. We saw an opportunity to help people not only survive, but thrive.”
In the Game Changer, members are guided by an EXOS performance coach and industry experts to address barriers that may be holding them back from reaching their highest potential at work or in life. Members learn science-backed strategies that deepen their curiosity, awaken their creativity, and help sustain energy and focus. The program structure combines weekly individual self-led challenges and live virtual team-based huddles and accountability, which provide community and support. People who’ve completed the Game Changer call it “transformative,” with 70% of participants saying they’re less stressed and 91% reporting that it “reignited their passion and purpose.”
Make rest and renewal a team effort.
Burnout is rampant and has surged during the pandemic. In our recent survey, we found that only 10% of respondents take a break daily, 50% take breaks just once or twice a week, and 22% report never taking breaks. Distancing from technology is particularly challenging, with a mere 8% of respondents reporting that they unplug from all technology daily. Consider what you can do to focus on recovery, together.
Tony Schwartz told Christine about the work his group did with a team from accounting firm Ernst and Young. In 2018, this team had been working on a particularly challenging project during the busy season, the result being that the team members became so exhausted and demoralized that a majority of them left the company afterward.
To try to change this, the 40-person EY team worked with the Energy Project to develop a collective “Resilience Boot Camp” in 2019 focused on teaching people to take more breaks and get better rest in order to manage their physical, emotional, and mental energy during especially intense periods. As a follow up, every other week for the 14 weeks of the busy season, the EY employees attended one-hour group coaching sessions during which team members discussed setbacks and challenges and supported one another in trying to embrace new recovery routines. Each participant was paired with another teammate to provide additional personal support and accountability.
Thanks to the significant shifts in behavior, accountants completed their work in fewer hours and agreed to take off one weekend day each week during this intense period. “Employees were able to drop 12 to 20 hours per week based on these changes, while accomplishing the same amount of work,” Schwartz told Christine.
By the end of the 2019 busy season, team members felt dramatically better than at the end of 2018’s. And five months after the busy season, when accounting teams typically lost people to exhaustion and burnout, this EY team’s retention stood at 97.5%. Schwartz told Christine that his main takeaway from that experience was “the power of community.”
. . .
Community can be a survival tool — a way for people to get through challenging things together — and helps move people from surviving to thriving. As we found, it also makes people much more likely to stay with your organization. What can you do to help build a sense of community?
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