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change’ said 2,500 years ago by Greek philosopher Heraclitis. I don’t know what kind of changes he was referring to in 500 BC, but his outlook is as true today in our fast-moving disruptive world as it was in his.

Change creates opportunities and kills businesses everyday. But of course, it is not change itself that has any effect, but the adapting, pivoting or dealing with such change that defines success or failure.

Sometimes change is accelerated beyond expectations and it is in those moments that we truly see those that can rise to a challenge. We are in the midst of one such change period right now. 

Back to School

 To truly understand the impact of change, I think it is worthwhile bringing you back to high school for a bit, physics 101. Have a look at the image below.

force and change example for business surviving change

That’s you trying to push a crate up a hill. But there are forces acting against you (illustrated here by small ‘f’). These forces are the Mass (weight) of the crate and the acting Gravity. Together Gravity and Mass want this crate to slide back down that hill. They are the forces acting on the crate, pressing down on you. But then there’s you (you’re a stickman, you lost a lot of weight in lock-down). To stop the crate sliding down the hill you need to administer an ‘equal but opposite force’, namely Newton’s Third Law of Motion. That’s capital ‘F’ on the picture. If you push back equal to Mass/Gravity, then the crate doesn’t slide down. Better still, if you administer a greater force, it moves up the hill, presumably what you want it to do (otherwise why are you halfway up a hill holding a heavy crate in place?). So in terms of the equation, to succeed we need our applied forced to be greater than natural forces, or namely F > f.

business change compared with physic change

Now the same is true of business success and change. Here you are again but now forget about Gravity and Mass and let’s take the forces pressing down on you as Change. These natural changes in your business environment can be anything. Internal challenges and change, external ones related to your competitive set, markets or economic factors. Or global pandemics sideswiping entire industries. You, as a business owner or manager, don’t have any control over these forces. They are as they are. You can complain about them, ignore them, but that doesn’t remove them. They are there, little ‘c’.

But the choice you do have is to apply ‘an equal or greater force of change’ against them. If you want your business to survive, just to standstill, then you need to match those forces of change with changes of your own. But if you want your business to truly thrive, to grow, you need to apply an even greater force of change. Applied change (C) greater than natural change (c). A formula for dealing with change successfully. Growth = C > c.

Now in times of extreme change it is natural to just want to survive. Or perhaps even to turn away from those forces of change. Change can be scary, particularly strong uncontrollable change. We get scared and our natural instincts kick-in. Fight, Flight or Freeze.

Freeze: Don’t Move

Take the last option above, the Freeze. That seems like an option in times of adverse change doesn’t it? Just take a breath and see how it all pans out. Let’s not rush into anything. Let’s see what our competitors do. Maybe it’ll all go back to normal?

rabbit in the middle of the fields

In nature, animals use the freeze strategy to disinterest predators, to ‘disappear’ as it will. Lots of predators use motion as their attack trigger. If their prey isn’t moving, then they disappear off that radar. It’s a good strategy, if you’re a chipmunk or a rabbit. But not a great one for a brand or business.

As the quote from Lauren Bacall (the great American actress) reads above. if you chose to standstill in a rapidly changing world, you actually move backwards. You think you are doing the right thing, standing still, staying strong. But if the change around you is fast and powerful, you are slowly drowning. As that other quote goes (this time from Edwin Louis Cole, the American minister), ‘You don’t drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there’. Sometimes the Freeze really isn’t the best survival option. You need to move forward with change.

So, what are the other options if not freeze?

Run For It

Billy Connolly, the infamous Scottish comedian, has a famous ‘flight’ joke.

Lacing running shoes

Two men are on the African plains filming a pride of lions for a nature documentary. Having set up at what they thought was a safe distance, they notice one of the huge male lions coming towards them, slowly at first but then picking up his pace.

The cameraman reaches into his equipment bag and pulls out a pair of trainers, discarding his sandals and lacing them up, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the approaching lion. His colleague, also panicking, nervously quips “you’re never going to outrun a lion in those” to which the cameraman replies “Oh I don’t need to outrun the lion, I just need to out run you”!

Sometimes flight is the right thing to do when under threat. But in business it rarely is. Running from your problems is not the way to build a solid business. Sadly, a lot of businesses did just that in recent months, stepped away from the crate so to speak, watched it slide down the hill, shrugging their shoulders with a ‘well it’s a global pandemic, what can we do” attitude. 

The businesses that I have been working with understand the need to not simply survive during these times but to thrive. To search for the opportunity within the crisis.

Fight the Good Fight

So lastly, we have the Fight response, adrenaline surging through your muscles empowering you to defend and/or attack, a survival instinct at its best. But you’re unlikely to win a fight unless you’ve trained for it.

Ken Hughes with the IRFU (Irish Rugby team) during a training

I was working with the Irish Rugby team a while back, and was talking about success, achievement and motivation with them, about goals and adversity. When chatting with one of the players afterward about coping with adversity and pressure on the playing field, he reminded me of that navy Seals quote

‘We don’t rise to the occasion, we sink to our level of training’. When you need to fight for what you want, it helps to have trained for it. 

Training is never great fun. Competing, well that’s the fun part, but the training, the hard slog, the part you rarely see, that’s the drudgery. Mohammed Ali once said that he hated every minute of training but that he believed in ‘suffer now and live the rest of your life a champion”

So we might accept that fighting change is what is needed, but unless you’ve built an adaptive business, with assets that are flexible, people prepared to pivot, and a genuine hunger for going in a different direction, the change fight can be a bruising one. 

Sometimes fighting things head on is not the strategy. Change requires a new way of thinking, new approaches and creative execution. `To fight something head on can be exhausting, even fatal.  Every year, around this time, lifeguards all over the world remind people about riptide currents at a beach, and what to do if you get caught in one.

How to Escape a rip current

A riptide current will take you straight out to sea. Most will naturally try and fight the current, trying their best to swim back to the fast disappearing shore. The problem with this is you quickly become exhausted and overwhelmed. The ocean is more powerful than you. What you need to do is swim sideways, parallel with the shore, and swim out of the rip current. Then your efforts will be rewarded and you can make your way back to your towel and the sand in your sushi (look at you with such a posh beach picnic!). Fighting things head on isn’t always the best strategy.

Pivot Away from the Current

Aside from learning some life-saving tips there, that is also what clever brands and businesses have done in recent months. The force of change that the pandemic has brought us is like a rip-tide, pulling the sand from beneath our feet.  Sure, you can do the ‘freeze’ and not fight against the change and see where it takes you. The problem with that is by the time you are free of the current, you might be very far from shore and find it very difficult to find your way back to your customers.

Instead, recognize the forces of change, look to pivot the business, and apply a greater change pressure to bear on the situation. 

Victor vs Victim in Business Change

Don’t be the VICTIM of change, the one that blames external forces on poor business performance. Victims don’t take personal responsibility, they blame others, they expect others to solve their problems. VICTORS on the other hand take personal ownership of change, they make it their business to seek out solutions, to move forward, to adapt. 

Be a VICTOR in these times of change. Put on your trainers, outrun the lion, pivot the business, swim perpendicular to the current. Instil a culture of change and an adaptive approach in your organisation.  

If the only constant is change, you’re going to need to keep training.

To learn more about how to escape a riptide:

To learn more about the life of the Greek philosopher Heraclitis:

To listen to more of the amazing Billy Connolly:

To learn how to make great sushi to bring to the beach:

Ken Hughes is now acknowledged as being one of the world’s leading authorities on consumer and shopper behaviour, blending his understanding of consumer & cyber psychology, digital anthropology, behavioral economics and retail futurology to explore the needs of the new consumer and predict the changes to come.

To book Ken Hughes to inspire your team around disruption, innovation and change click here

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A blog to  inspire and delight