Why Adaptability Matters More Than Planning

Extinction occurs in nature when a species fails to adapt, and the same thing happens in business.

Businesswoman Working on a Laptop

Many business leaders say "failing to plan is planning to fail." And while this maxim holds, what happens to your plans when you need to pivot?

If leaders learned anything in the past two years, it's that they can't plan for everything. Approximately 200,000 businesses closed permanently in the first year of the pandemic, and many others are still struggling to recover. And yet, some businesses have gone on to thrive even amidst all of the upheavals. What did they do differently?

The businesses that thrive are those that know how to adapt. When things go awry (and things always do in one way or another), the ability to pivot your business or try out a new tactic may be the very thing that will keep you operational.

Leaders can't possibly conceive a plan for every potential challenge ahead of them any more than they can entirely rely on weather predictions. The only thing you can do is keep an umbrella in the car and a raincoat in the office, ready to dash through the storm regardless of when the rain clouds break open.

Responding Versus Reacting

All too often, leaders use the word "plan" to describe rigid systems and protocols that come to a screeching halt when they are thrown a curveball. You need plans, yes, but only insofar as they allow you to adapt quickly. You should not create step-by-step plans that leave no wiggle room, sending you spiraling at the slightest deviation from your course. Instead, your plans should be general outlines that align everyone toward your goals while remaining aware that things may need to be adjusted.

Adaptability allows you to respond instead of reacting when faced with unplanned circumstances.

When you react, your emotions are heightened, and it is much harder to see the big picture — you put temporary bandages on problems without making any fundamental shifts for the future. When the bandages fall off, you start the cycle all over again, panicking at the first sign of trouble. Responding, on the other hand, is calculated, thoughtful and level. It allows you to pause, assess our options and take a systemic approach to overcome the obstacle you are facing.

You should treat unplanned elements as an expectation, not a surprise in business. With this mindset, you remove much of the fear and drama around challenging times and can instead quickly get to work figuring out how we will get through them.

Many things will arise beyond the scope of your control. If you create nimble systems and are responsive rather than reactive, you can turn obstacles into opportunities or, at the very least, reduce the negative impact they create.

Adaptability in Action

Many businesses have had to learn how to adapt due to the challenges they dealt with during the pandemic and the new normal everyone is now living in. A good friend of mine was forced to shut down the bulk of his multi-store retail dry cleaning business overnight. This would be a devastating and paralyzing event for most business owners, but he refused to accept failure as an option and pushed himself to adapt.

He got together with his leadership team and immediately took action. They assessed the opportunities of their collective assets, skills, and resources, and they figured out what was transferable. They realized they had a strong delivery fleet, customer service team, and infrastructure to support simple consumer-focused services. After considering what else would be impacted by COVID-19 and given the surge in online shopping and deliveries, they started a new company delivering packages for Amazon. Instead of being a business decimated by the pandemic, he now leads a healthy and growing second business.

Nobody could have predicted the impact COVID-19 would have on the world, and no one has a way of knowing what other unexpected curve balls life may throw in the coming years. However, if you can respond to the crises you face with a level head and work to leverage your strengths (instead of flying off the handle in a panic), you can adapt and persevere through even the most challenging times.

Adapt and Endure

Extinction occurs in nature when a species fails to adapt, and the same thing happens in business. If businesses do not adapt and change as the world does, they will die. You only need to look at the demise of Blockbuster as an example. As Americans began to rent movies from home, Blockbuster was unprepared to adapt — they were in a large amount of debt and did not have the systems in place to transition into streaming. The once giant company could not keep up with the changing times and thus ceased to exist.

Do not back yourself into a corner. Consider your strengths and work to understand which elements of your business you can leverage into transferable skills or solve different problems should you need to. In doing so, you create an agile business ready to pivot when necessary.

The Greeks said it best: the only constant in life is change. And while change is hard, it can also be incredibly rewarding. Times of change stimulate growth, bringing about new perspectives and opportunities you hadn't considered. However, these possibilities will not exist if you do not learn to adapt.

Allow yourself to be surprised at what is possible in your life and business. It may not look exactly how you thought it would, but you may create something far better than anything you could have ever imagined before.

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