Or how to turn those barriers into springboards…
As we move into 2023, it feels as if the business headwinds are stronger than ever. World events – pandemics, wars, political instability – have disrupted customers buying habits and supply chain reliability, leaving many businesses stuck in the middle of a seemingly endless stream of problems. The barriers to growth seem insurmountable – in fact survival, not growth is the order of the day for many.
What would it take to turn these very challenges into a competitive advantage? How could we approach them so that we are not just surviving, but thriving? Nassim Taleb coined the phrase anti-fragile for businesses that could thrive in uncertainty and change – resilient or robust is not the opposite of fragile in his view. Our immune system is a perfect example – getting stronger through the challenge of fighting a virus.
The idea of using today’s problems to build tomorrow’s capabilities is at the heart of our approach to organisational performance. We know that the solutions we find for today, will contain the seeds for tomorrow’s challenges, so the opportunity is in growing our capability and capacity as we go. This is how we evolve to respond to more complex contexts as they emerge. That’s how we thrive.
This is not about ‘sugar-coating’ the issues we face right now. They are real. They need to be addressed and there is no magic wand to make them disappear. In fact, it is the struggle that is important. It is the opportunity to learn in adversity that holds the promise for the future. As James Carse described, we are playing an infinite game where the aim is to stay in the game. We are not just looking for a series of short-term wins.
Bottom-line, we need to focus on how we fix things, not just the what we fix.
But how exactly…
Here are a few useful perspectives or frames of reference that give us some clues.
Firstly, the future is unknown and unknowable. Surely recent years have shown us that – a Prime Minister that lasted just 49 days, for example! In spite of this, our operating models for business – designed in more stable times – are all about goals and plans and budgets, all of which assume we can make at least a reasonable estimate of what’s going to happen next.
Secondly, we are in a world that is not just complicated, but complex. As Mary Uhl-Bien puts it, a jumbo jet is complicated, but mayonnaise is complex. Unexpected things emerge in complex systems (mayonnaise from eggs and oil) in unseen and irreversible processes.
Finally, everything is in relationship with everything else. Things are connected. Whatever we see, it is never just that and nothing else, as Gregory Bateson put it.
So how do we thrive in this kind of world?
We have to tend to the conditions from which performance can emerge. Which conditions? Well, Myron Rogers suggests we can start anywhere, but need to follow everywhere. After all, everything is connected. We have found the following acronym a useful memory jogger for conditions for anti-fragile organisations.
Higher Purpose – when the future is so uncertain this provides a guiding direction, without narrowing possibilities with specific goals.
Agency – with problems needing to be resolved quickly, people close to the source need to act. They need the freedom and willingness to take responsibility – to be able to experiment.
Relationships – the connectedness of everything necessitates effective working relationship between all those involved. Teams need to form, act, and disband. Then reform and so on.
Disruption – what brought success becomes the habits that get us stuck in our ways. We have to be able to disrupt ourselves to take on new thinking and fresh perspectives.
Solutions will emerge for the problems we face today when these conditions are most fully present. At the same time, we can use today’s problems to build more of these conditions by attending to how we develop the solutions. In this way we can create a virtuous cycle in which our business evolves and grows.
We turn the barriers in to springboards.
What might this look like in practice?
I spoke to a Chief Operating Officer this week whose situation sounded very typical. His business runs around 75 ‘value offer’ restaurants – a traditionally tight margin business. In the last 2 years he has seen food input costs rise by 50%, energy bills increase 10-fold and frontline wages rise by over 20%. The economics of his business have completely changed.
With necessity being the mother of invention, this business has responded with operational innovations that have reduced costs through improved efficiencies – centralising more of the food buying and preparation, for example. This has reduced the inevitable consumer price increases, in what is a traditionally price sensitive market – particularly in the cost of living crisis we are all experiencing.
How can they continue to respond and innovate in a way that builds the conditions for future success?
Central to this is increasing the participation in finding solutions – how can it become something everyone is working on, not just the senior team? They are exploring how to build a customer experience (CX) that will increase loyalty, in what is a low-touch service proposition. Doing so means developing the relationship with their employees – the opportunity is there to tackle CX through their employee experience (EX). So, they could be asking:
- Can they help everyone see a higher purpose in their work?
- What will allow front-line teams to feel more able to act in the moment to service customers better?
- How can confidence and loyalty be built through the relationships within each restaurant?
- In what ways could the central teams work together differently to inspire a change in the restaurants?
Using the HARD acronym, helps identify questions that can be explored that will not only solve today’s burning question – how do we improve our customer experience – but also build the capabilities and culture that will move toward thriving in the uncertainty to come.
This is what it means to become anti-fragile.
This is how barriers to growth right now can be used as springboard for future performance.
Carse, James P. (2013), Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life and Play and Possibility, Simon and Schuster
Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2013), Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder, Penguin
Uhl-Bien, Mary and Marion, Russ (Eds.) (2008) Complexity Leadership, Information Age Publishing
Wheatley, Margret and Rogers, Myron (1996), A Simpler Way, Berrett-Koehler