Adapt or die. We’ve all heard this imperative. While there’s some wisdom buried in this imperative, it needs to be drawn out. Most people interpret this imperative in a way that can become deeply dysfunctional and ultimately leads to death. Adapt is not sufficient – we need to first anticipate, then adapt.
Adapting in the Big Shift
What do I mean? Let me start by setting some context. As I’ve written about extensively, we’re in the early stages of a Big Shift that is transforming our global economy and society. The Big Shift has many dimensions to it, but one key dimension is the accelerating pace of change in all aspects of our lives.
When confronted with this accelerating change, we as humans have some natural reactions. The first reaction is to go into denial – we tend to diminish or even dismiss our perception of the changes that are going on around us. We want to believe the world is actually much more stable and that we’ll return to the world we knew and relied on.
As the change accelerates, we begin to flip the switch and go to the other end of the spectrum. Now, we’re consumed by the change we see around us and we begin to see that we need to change ourselves. How do we change? We embrace the need to adapt, but the adaptation we pursue is highly reactive. We react to whatever is happening in the moment and finding ways to change to meet the new needs surfacing around us.
Here’s the problem. As the pace of change accelerates and expands, falling into a purely reactive approach can become overwhelming. There’s so much that’s changing that we end up spreading ourselves way too thinly across so many different fronts that we fail to keep up with the changes consuming us.
The need to anticipate
So, what’s the alternative? Before we adapt, we need to invest the time and effort to anticipate. We need to look ahead and try to determine how the changes around us are likely to evolve. We need to anticipate which changes will lead to new opportunities that are the most meaningful to address.
This certainly won’t be easy, but that’s why it’s important to invest the time and effort to anticipate. I’ve written about the power of a zoom out/zoom in approach to strategy for institutions and I’ve explored the techniques that can help institutions to zoom out on a 10-20 year horizon and anticipate very big emerging opportunities. Over time, I’ve come to realize that this approach to strategy also has significant value for all of us as individuals.
We need to make the effort to look ahead 10-20 years and anticipate what the world might look like then and what really big opportunities are likely to emerge to address unmet needs of others. Consistent with a zoom out/zoom in approach, we need to then focus on the next 6-12 months to identify 2-3 initiatives that we could pursue in the short-term and that could have the greatest impact in accelerating our progress to addressing the really big opportunities that are emerging.
This is where adaptation can now play a much more useful role. Once we have some focus on the changes that really matter, we can avoid being distracted by changes that are temporary or marginal. As we pursue the short-term initiatives, we’ll quickly discover what new approaches can yield the greatest impact in helping us to evolve so that we can address the opportunities that really matter. We’ll adapt much more quickly because we’re committing more time and effort to the changes that really matter, rather than getting consumed by reacting to all the changes erupting around us.
There’s another important advantage to anticipation. In a world that’s rapidly changing and creating mounting performance pressure, we have a natural human tendency to be consumed by fear. While understandable, fear is also a very limiting emotion, as I’ve discussed in my new book, The Journey Beyond Fear. If we’re afraid, we tend to shrink our time horizons, we become much more risk averse, and our trust in others erodes. Fear diminishes our ability to adapt. We just focus on very short-term changes, we become less willing to go outside our comfort zone and we are more reluctant to seek help from others.
In contrast, if we make the effort to anticipate some really meaningful opportunities what will emerge from the changes around us, we’ll begin to draw out the passion of the explorer that will help us to adapt much more effectively and rapidly. Rather than being reluctant to adapt, we’ll be excited about adaptation because it will help us to achieve the impact that is meaningful to us. As a result, we’ll also be driven to ask for help from others so that we can accelerate our progress even more.
The untapped potential of leverage
That leads to another advantage of anticipation – it can help us to leverage our efforts and to learn much more rapidly. If we look ahead and identify a really big opportunity that’s meaningful to us, it’s much more likely to be meaningful to others as well. If we share our excitement about that really big opportunity and ask for help from others, we’re much more likely to draw others who also become excited about the opportunity. We’ll begin to achieve much greater impact as we unleash the network effects that come from joining together to achieve shared objectives.
But the benefit of this kind of leverage is even bigger. If others share our excitement about the really big opportunities ahead, they will also become motivated to adapt. They will be driven to come together with us so that they can learn faster together through action and reflection on the results achieved from their actions. They will be much more motivated to collaborate and take risks that are inevitably encountered when we seek to develop new approaches in a rapidly changing environment. And, no matter how smart and talented any of us are, we’ll learn a lot faster and adapt a lot faster if we come together in small groups with deep trust-based relationships where we are all motivated to learn faster together. I call these groups “impact groups” and I’ve come to believe that they will play a key role in accelerating our adaptation – I explore this in much greater detail in The Journey Beyond Fear.
Adaptation and evolution
But, wait a minute. I can hear some real push back around this notion of anticipation as a foundation for adaptation. Many people are likely to point to the evolution of species on Earth and say that they have evolved and survived based purely on adaptation, without anticipation.
Agreed. But the evolution of species has been driven by the law of large numbers. Each being may seek to adapt, but very few are successful. The good news is that there are generally a lot of beings in a species and most of them will die off to make room for the few lucky beings that pursue the right kind of adaptation. Those lucky beings will proliferate and eventually dominate the species until the next set of changes require further adaptation and then the cycle starts over again.
What I’m seeking is a way for all of us to not just survive, but thrive. I believe that’s a realistic objective if we all move beyond adaptation and focus on anticipation. Of course, this will take some time and we’ll need to cultivate the capability of anticipation. It won’t be easy, but it can be done if we come together and make the effort.
Don’t get consumed by the imperative to adapt. Begin by seeking to anticipate how the world is likely to evolve and the really big opportunities that will emerge in that world, providing us with the ability to have impact that’s much more meaningful to us. Once we begin to see those opportunities, we’ll be able to focus on adaptation that really matters. We’ll also be able to come together with others who excited about these opportunities and find ways to adapt much more rapidly and effectively than if we attempt to adapt in isolation. If we get this right, we won’t just survive, we’ll thrive in ways that are difficult to imagine in a world that is rapidly changing.