Responding To Unexpected Change - Reactive to Adaptive

One of the most common questions I’m asked in a strategy process – usually toward the end – is about what to do when things change.

Because, they do, don’t they? Despite our best efforts, our environment doesn’t stand still. Sometimes these changes are small, and manageable. Other times, they’re not. Other times, they're changes that trigger potentially cataclysmic shifts in our understanding of the world. WWI, the digital revolution, 9/11 and the GFC are all examples of what Nicholas Taleb calls ‘Black Swan’ events – things that come as a huge surprise, have a widespread impact and tend to be rationalised after the fact as being far more predictable than they really were.

At times, it’s as though the second we feel as though we have some certainty, the ground shifts underneath us. 

“A person never knows what is next. I don’t. The surface of everything is thinner than we know.” – Leif Enger, Virgil Wander

Change and complexity is guaranteed. Plans are great… until the ink is dry. Then, we risk finding ourselves left with uncomfortable dissonance when reality takes hold. Strategy is better – a principled, objective-focused vision of the future that guides a proactive response. Preparation trumps prediction any day, but it also carries the threat of opportunity cost, and the loss of an opportunity to grow. Strategic capability trumps the lot. With the right tools and a new mindset, things start to look a bit different. When we invest in our resilience and skillset to respond constructively to change, we open ourselves for growth. As our agency rises, change begins to feel less like a threat, and more like a chance to change and learn.

Like many things, this is clearest in the context of our children. When kids start behaving in ways we don’t enjoy, we have options. We can watch, and do nothing. Or, we can respond, with correction or punishment. Both of these options capture valid in-moment responses for different scenarios. Where kids are concerned, a bit of selective ignorance definitely has its place.

The modern parent, however, besieged by internet advice and over-thinking, will likely have given potential behaviours some thought, and will have laid the groundwork: communicating expectations, and establishing routines (only to see them change, and change again.) 

Where parenting really starts to mess with you, though, however, are in the moments when a well-timed and innocent question gives you moment to pause. It usually comes in the form of: Why?

These moments feel like challenges – but they present tremendous opportunity. The chance to ask: Are these really the rules and values that matter – or habits passed on automatically from our own childhood? What should our position really be on this? What are we trying to teach?

Strategy is like this too. 

In strategy, we ask why we care, and what really matters. We articulate a position, define a future vision and think about our goals and impact. This enables us to be proactive in the face of change and respond in ways that further our version of the future, rather than reacting with panic, overcorrection and under-cooked ideas.


What this approach risks missing, however, is the deeper opportunity, buried just below the thin surface. The opportunity to grow from trauma, to make something positive come from something terrible. Post-traumatic growth literature highlights that acute stress can be a catalyst for transformative change – for people, for organisations, and for communities. In times of great uncertainty, it’s easy to feel helpless and lost. 

The things about resilience and growth is that neither tend to come from happy times – they blossom from the choices we make when things are difficult. 

When our norms and values are tested we can be passive and surrender our agency, we can react in the moment, we can fall back on the things we have prepared – or we can ask bigger questions about the way we can grow. Embracing agency forces us to ask “What is our contribution to this?” "What impact can we have?" and “How might we need to change?”

Abandoning old ways and changing course – in strategy, in our personal lives, and as a society – is not a failing.

Thinking differently and choosing to behave differently to who we were last week is anything but weak – it is adaptive, it shows ownership and it opens the doors for a different and better future.

Kia kaha everyone.
-    A

Alicia McKay