Bats get a bad rap. They make us think of Halloween, vampires, witches, and getting tangled in people’s hair. Another name for a colony of bats is a cauldron. And then there is that story of the kid who falls in a well with the bats who later in life is so troubled by the experience he starts dressing like one and spending time in his cave hideout.
In nature, bats are masters of adaptation. They have evolved to be nocturnal, hiding in small dens and nests during the day to avoid predators and keeping their dark, leathery wings from overheating. At night, they wake and go about their daily tasks which include feeding mostly on insects (not your children or pets). Using echolocation, akin to sonar, bats send out ultrasonic pulses that bounce off objects and return to their large, sensitive ears. Their precision is remarkable, able to locate objects as small as human hair, and one of their favourite meals is the tiny mosquito. Bats congregate where food and companionship are abundant, and in colder climates, they hibernate in the winter.
Bats don’t have strategic plans. They don’t wake up every day (night) trying to predict the future, set goals, build execution plans, and worry about how they will beat the competition. They don’t seem to care too much about the uncertainty and unpredictability of their lives.
Like most creatures in nature, bats prosper because they adapt. Many times per second they test their environment and adjust. Course correction is their superpower.
There is value in forecasting, setting goals and crafting action plans. In fact, most significant human endeavours are preceded by goals, predictions, implementation plans and strategies. But as the pace of change and uncertainty increases, our adaptation muscles need to be as strong as our planning ones.
Comfort in Uncertainty
Human beings loathe uncertainty. It has been studied for decades and found to be a primary source of anxiety and stress and linked to several anxiety disorders, depression, and eating dysfunctions. In extreme conditions, a lack of tolerance for uncertainty can be chronic, preventing people from doing what most of us think is normal like going to the grocery store or crossing the street.
Uncertainty causing stress is more than just an emotion, it triggers measurable physiological responses. Studies in both animals and humans demonstrate that they experience greater levels of perceived pain when stimuli (minor electrical shocks) are administered unpredictably versus with some predictability.
Further, when we are faced with significant uncertainty causing stress, our brains don’t work as well. According to Sarah Noll Wilson, an expert in leadership development, stress creates biological and chemical reactions in our bodies that can impede our interactions with others. When stress is high, cortisol is created and our ability to connect with others is lessened; we are more closed and our decision-making is impaired.
Getting comfortable with uncertainty is not a simple task. And there is no question uncertainty will continue to accelerate due to the ever-increasing pace of change. Despite the great advances in technology recently, there has yet to be a good crystal ball app that will accurately predict our future so we can have more certainty in the future.
The antidote to the stress and anxiety caused by uncertainty is resilience, the capacity to adapt in the face of trauma, tragedy, adversity, and difficulties. It is sometimes referred to as toughness or grit. It is not the ability to avoid or become numb to the stress induced by uncertainty, but rather the trait of not being controlled by it. This is true of all types of emotional control.
Courage is not the lack of experiencing fear, but instead the ability to think and act while experiencing fear.
Individuals can build their own personal resilience through various practices including mindfulness, adequate rest, deep relationships with others, clarity of personal values, self-awareness, reflecting and learning from past experiences, and staying fit.
Building Organizational Resilience
Resilience can be applied to an organizational context too. Since an organization is a collection of individuals, the resilience of an organization is highly related to that of its individuals. Further, although organizations don’t need adequate sleep and practices of mindfulness, they can have other resilience characteristics to help them deal with the unexpected:
- A strong balance sheet with cash or liquid assets available, and a low debt burden.
- A ‘virtual bench’ – a list of potential candidates for key roles where some relationship is maintained such that they could be approached when an unexpected vacancy occurs. This could include a pool of short-term contractors.
- Business interruption plans and contingencies, which could include business interruption insurance (along with other types of business insurance).
- Cross-training of employees in different roles.
- Clarity of values and purpose.
- A firm but flexible strategic planning process that embraces learning and experimentation.
This final element, a flexible strategic planning process, requires some additional explanation. What exactly is a flexible, adaptable strategic planning process?
Roger L. Martin, author of “Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works,” and long-time dean of the Rotman School of Management in Toronto, cuts through some of the confusion about strategic planning. He notes that business leaders often fail in strategic planning because they pursue “budget thinking”, overly detailed planning, and resource-based approaches. These traps move strategic thinking into our “comfort zones” instead of recognizing that strategy is about making uncomfortable decisions that take our firms into an unknown and uncertain future.
Martin suggests three rules to help keep strategic thinking on track:
- Keep the strategy statement simple – clarity is important and will allow for easy understanding by employees and support more detailed plan alignment.
- Recognize that strategy is not about perfection – Jack Welch, the former CEO of GE, is famously quoted as saying, “Set a general direction and execute like hell.” To learn we must “do”, and by doing we “learn.”
- Make the logic explicit – in a turbulent world, it is easy to lose track of the logic, information and assumptions that went into choosing a path or making a past decision.
Execution takes priority over having a perfect strategy. A mediocre strategy executed flawlessly will always outperform a flawless strategy executed in a mediocre way. Business guru Tom Peters states, “execution is the Missing 98% for success.” Likewise, Kaplan and Norton in their research for the book, “The Execution Premium” found that between 60 and 90% of strategies fail because of poor execution.
That said, execution relies on having a strategy – there is nothing to execute without a strategic plan – and therefore strategy and execution are co-dependent.
Adaptable strategic planning requires frequent attention. Strategic thinking is not just something that is done once a year around fiscal year-end. Many businesses have fallen into the trap of aligning strategic planning and budgeting, and therefore only do it once a year. Annually is too infrequent for strategic review and reset. With the pace of change, today’s business strategy should be revisited more often.
In our experience working with hundreds of organizations, there is something magic to a 90-day (quarterly) rhythm in strategic planning. One quarter, thirteen weeks, is long enough to undertake projects and make meaningful progress on longer-term objectives, yet short enough to allow leaders to identify opportunities and threats and adjust or pivot if required.
It is said nothing ever goes as planned. Although this is often true, planning still matters. Planning clarifies intention, sets direction and primes actions. As long as there is a willingness to review, reassess and change, plans are a key element of success.
Human beings will never be as adaptable as bats, but resilience and adaptability are increasingly becoming important factors in our ever-changing world.
If you would like to learn more about how to improve your business resilience, book a chat with one of our business consultants. We also have some fantastic free resources to take advantage of like: