Only the Nimble Will Survive


Robin Neifield

To survive in a competitive environment, company leaders must develop a nimble approach. They must be able to easily adapt to the changing business landscape and be comfortable with a degree of uncertainty.

It is the nature of organizations to take conservative positions to ensure their survival. Middle managers do it to secure their jobs and a next promotion. Boards do it because they think they are safeguarding the institution and representing shareholders’ best interests. Sticking with the formula we know has always worked, right?

But in today’s environment, strong leaders know the conservative position to be radically different from the predictable path we have in the past associated with smart and safe. In today’s environment, the only way to be truly secure is to regularly and continually change it up. Businesses today face constant disruption in response to a digital world and the consumer experience that is ever-changing. To stubbornly remain consistent while the world around you pivots is folly of the most expensive and risky sort.

Even if you have found a profitable formula, it is the kiss of death to doggedly hold onto that formula in the face of the incredible information loop that the digital market provides. A reasoning mind would clearly understand that the value of digital lies in its fluidity and ability to learn and provide valuable feedback. But since organizations are not particularly good at reasoning, it falls to those who own the goals and the budgets along with other influential marketing, technology, and digital experts within the organization to champion not a specific plan, but an approach.

Plans vs. Approaches

Plans are relatively easy to put together and get approved. You can forecast against them and there is (a false) security in doing what you have always done or some version of it, knowing what you are spending and the return you are very likely to obtain. Approaches are much harder to define and manage, but they are much more strategic. They require a more integrative approach, a more fluid support structure, and those responsible for the approach have to be more comfortable with a degree of uncertainty.

This seemingly small change from creating a plan to planning an approach is actually a giant leap that will likely require a significant shift within the organization and not a small bit of coaxing away from the illusion of security. You have to convince your stakeholders that success is not about finding the magic media combination or resonant messaging – at least not by itself and definitely not a onetime deal. Success today is about finding a deeper understanding of your audience so that you can continue to meet their needs as they move and change. If consumers are a moving target, then the true conservative position is to always be moving and testing. As user habits, devices, and choices morph you need to be able to dynamically move what is often a large, ponderous organizational beast. The only way to react with the required speed is to have the processes, approvals, information, experts, and budgets at the ready and working in concert against a common set of goals. A static plan is not able to do that, but an informed approach can.

This is not a gentle nudge or a slight shift and it may not be possible for every organization to make these changes at once in the face of institutionally cemented ways of decision-making, hiring, and budgeting. When we say an organization is nimble – this is often what we are observing. They have created the ability to move quickly and thoughtfully in a smart, informed manner.

As you advance your 2015 planning this fall, try to shift your organization or at least your department away from a plan to a more nimble approach to meeting your objectives. Be an evangelist for testing and change by laying out the benefits and gathering support from all the various departments and experts that are critical to the overall goals. Start by laying a framework for observation and analysis and then create a short, direct, unencumbered path to decision-making that is triggered by clear thresholds of performance or activity. If X happens, we move in this manner; if Y happens, we move in this manner. There is not a formula for the approach you are trying to define, as each business will have a unique set of directives that respond to competitive actions, consumer response, and performance cues. Each move will be informed by market feedback. This nimble response will allow smart businesses to continually raise their own bars, while the less nimble businesses will only be confined by them.