You can tell when an organization is at a pinnacle. You can see it in its mature and well executed processes, and you can feel it in the organizational culture. Most people take great pride in being part of something great.

Success can also be a very dangerous thing. Companies like Sears and JCPenney were once the dominating leaders in their industry. What happened? What was their downfall? While there is no singular answer to this question, it is a series of events that starts with an inability or failure of the firm to be able to recognize shifts that are taking (or have taken) place.

You see, an organization (or a person) becomes formidable through mastering its current environment. Success is achieved and measured by metrics, financial results or recognition. Systems, processes, and reinforcing structures are put in place to make these successes repeatable. Training takes place and successes continue in a more efficient way. 

What can actually result from these activities, surprisingly, can be inertia. Inertia is the tendency to remain unchanged. And yes, even successful organizations that work really hard, that are supremely productive, and that implement improvement efforts can have inertia. Shifts can arise from inside the organization, such as employees no longer wanting to sit in a cubicle all day and preferring to collaborate with their peers. Shifts can arise from competitors testing unconventional products using unconventional methods. Shifts can also arise from external forces such as a pandemic that everyone wishes would just go away so that things can “return to normal.”

Jack Welch stated, “control your own destiny or someone else will.” One of the key elements of survival, and adaptation, is the willingness to self disrupt. Self disruption can be a very scary proposition. It means actually moving away from the familiar. For the successful organization, adaptation can represent a threat to the very reputation and brand that they have worked so hard to secure. Disruption is a letting go of the familiar. For some, it can feel like a death of identity.

If an organization has not conscientiously incorporated self disruption and adaptation approaches as part of its identity and DNA, massive shifts can ignite the stress response in the organizational culture, actually inhibiting the very same innovation efforts that the organization is actively investing in. It’s easier to go numb, or to keep banging on the same nail harder with your hammer than it is to think about using a different tool. Part of the problem is – successful organizations expect to succeed. And it is this mindset that reduces the appetite for experimentation. Much like a toddler learning to walk, doing something brand new may take a few trials. Successful organizations may not know how to tolerate, appreciate and learn from failure.

If an organization has not proactively adapted, the time comes sooner or later where the risks associated with changing seem less than the risks associated with staying the same and adaptation efforts commence. The problem with this is that established and successful firms are often embedded in networks of relationships with suppliers and customers that makes these types of decisions interdependent. It is far easier for these types of organizations to incrementally innovate than it is for them to consider something radical or disruptive – too much is at stake. However, industry incumbents in mature markets present ripe feeding grounds for new entrants who are hungry and willing to employ radical methods to achieve their fair share of the market, even if that advantage is temporary. 

Airbnb is one such example. A little over a decade ago, it would have been unfathomable for companies such as Marriott or Hilton to consider that an organization with no capital investments, infrastructure and few employees could disrupt the hotel industry. In reality, the only things that Airbnb actually has to offer is an amazing platform, and brand that evokes a sense of trust. Everything else is leveraged off of agreements between hosts and guests. Yet, their valuation is over $100 billion and they successfully issued their IPO in the midst of a global pandemic. Sound familiar? Former Blockbuster employees might agree.

Success in your organization (or in your life) might be measured by several criteria. Just be sure that some of those measurements include your willingness to try something different, fail, take risks and evolve.

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