Retailers talk about 'evolving' into different organisations to meet the changing customer landscape. Ian Jindal ponders some of the questions that this mental model poses to retailers looking to be top of the tree of commercial life.
CHANGE can be driven by external stimulus (competitive threat, new opportunity, larger dinosaur roaming the plains), or by new capability and opportunity (new market, a cunning invention or the discovery that you can fly). In retail we can add to these market and capability drivers the fact that our customers are also changing significantly through a combination of recessionary pressures, technological and digital capabilities and a blurring of boundaries between retailers, brands and entertainment.
Evolutionary biology has proven a fertile area for analogies, with companies talking about the 'need to evolve' in order to survive. Business people talk with a straight face about the need to 'evolve' their business in response to changing times. Last I checked, however, individual organisms do not themselves evolve. It is the species that evolves – sadly (for some) through the death of the least fit while the better-adapted to the environment survive and maybe thrive. If we can't change ourselves from being a chicken to being a cow (at least not in this lifetime) what are our options?
As businesses we can adapt within a competitive timeframe and the organism can then evolve over time. We need to consider our business as a collection of skills on the one hand (a 'hive' of individuals, a flock of birds or a collection of cooperating specialists). We can amend the mix within the hive of people, process and technology – a sort of blood transfusion meeting organ transplant with some bioengineering thrown in for good measure. This transformation can be as painful and demanding – only slightly less so than dying! In order for this painful and radical approach to work there needs to be a clear and mobilizing vision from the business leadership. What animal are we trying to become and why?
While leaders can make changes in the components of their business, the most difficult challenge comes when they need to change themselves. Leaders now need to embody the changes required not by 'evolving' but by 'adapting'. One of the reasons for human survival so far is that humans have proven inventive and adaptable. Humans are optimized neither for extreme heat or cold, yet make a pretty good fist of living from pole to equator. Adaptability then is a human characteristic that leaders now need to re-embrace.
Leaders often rise to the top of their organisations by 'being the best', knowing important 'answers', and understanding what's "right" based on perceived rules. Leaders can therefore find changing a hitherto-successful approach to be demanding, yet understanding, embodying and driving adaptation could be the most important role for their shareholders and customers.
When we speak of leadership we are used to discussing IQ (their intelligence) and EQ (their 'emotional quotient' or ability to influence and work harmoniously with others), but an important characteristic for success is LQ or 'learning quotient'. LQ is the ability for a leader to learn, continue to learn, to change their views, behaviours and approaches based upon new information. A correlative of LQ is a level of sponge-like inquisitiveness that seeks novel approaches to meet goals.
As leaders ask their businesses to evolve and their colleagues to lead that change, the best leaders will themselves be adapting - inquiring, reflecting and changing. This is a value-driven approach that seeks improved, more appropriate means of achieving our vision and values. Not to adapt would be remarkable: one of the definitions of stupidity is to repeat the same actions while expecting different results each time!
As we look to a challenging, change-filled 2013, leaders reflect upon the adaptations they need to embody for their businesses to thrive. Chickens are not likely to start producing milk any time soon, but with a vision of providing a rounded diet to their customers it's entirely reasonable to think that they could set up a dairy! Odd though that may seem it's certainly far less weird than claiming that eggs are the answer to every question, or that an effort of will might induce lactation. All at IR Towers wish trading success to all of our readers this Christmas. We hope that you get your wishes from Santa, but don't spend your holiday milking chickens.