Are You Evolving or Becoming Endangered?

By: Grant W. Levitan and Eric H. Prensky

From Myspace to Kodak to Blockbuster to taxi cabs, management textbooks are littered with examples of businesses that were blindsided by emerging trends. In many cases, they went from endangered to extinct in the blink of an eye. On the other end of the spectrum are companies that were able to anticipate a seismic shift on the horizon and evolve to capitalize on an industry-leading position.

How does this happen? Well, we’ve all been in situations where we fail to take in new information because we believe things are going well. Or we scan the landscape only for information that confirms that we are on the right course. There are also times when we are under external pressure to make a decision quickly, and we fail to fully appreciate the complexity of the situation before us. These events have something in common—a lack of flexibility that often comes back to haunt us. This is particularly relevant given the current market conditions. Some companies, however, evolve and adapt, responding to business opportunities presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and accelerating into innovative new markets, as discussed in a recent blog post by our colleagues.

While many factors contribute to organizational behemoths facing extinction, we believe that having the right mindset among your team is even more critical right now. Companies that accelerate performance from this downturn will have read the landscape accurately and pivoted to adapt to the new environment. What differentiates those who will be successful from those who are stagnant is operating on a conceptual level—in the “what-if” space—and staying there long enough to engage in second- and third- order thinking. 

How can you start operating in this “what-if” space?  

There are ways for your team to find that perfect blend between conceptual flexibility and decisiveness, the sweet spot that combats inertia and allows disruptive ideas to germinate. Cognitive science tells us that there are at least four levels of flexibility when solving problems:

At the base level we are:

  • In love with our existing ideas and frameworks. We fail to gather information that might encourage an alternative approach.
  • Prone to adopt a single plan or strategy and work only within this framework.
  • Bound by our presuppositions, living in a comfy echo chamber.
  • Viewed by our peers as having one-track minds.

At mid-level we:

  • Cast a wide net, searching for information from a broad range of sources inside and outside of our industry and competitor cohort.
  • View problems and issues from a variety of perspectives.
  • Enlist others in generating more than one plan of attack for an operational or market challenge or opportunity.

At the upper level we:

  • Break free from preconceptions.
  • Solicit and welcome fresh ideas or concepts that conflict with our initial thoughts.
  • Realize that our map is not the territory.    
  • Sustain support for alternative proposals while determining the best solution.
  • Maintain flexibility to adapt and modify the idea as our chosen plan plays out. 

At the very top of the spectrum our teams:

  • Consistently demonstrate a high level of openness to data, feedback, and ideas and take what we learn to drive new market opportunities. 
  • Are ahead of the curve, continually scanning the environment for emerging trends within and outside of our immediate landscape that may turn the playing field upside down.
  • Maximize their degrees of freedom and are not bound by previous thinking; operate on multiple tracks or even fly above the rails to add a third dimension to their thinking.
  • Are learning, growing, and adapting even as planned solutions play out…and ingrain this mindset into the culture of the entire organization. 

To keep your team and culture at the top of the spectrum:

  1. Carve out time regularly as an executive team to examine macro trends and play out scenarios regarding potential disruption to business as usual.
  2. Actively engage others around key challenges through direct questioning, probing, and brainstorming. Ask, “Have we conducted a broad enough search?”
  3. Establish processes to pull for multiple solutions to every issue. Ask, “What other options do we have? How will each solution play out?”
  4. Normalize the notion that the plan is always a work in progress and will need constant mid-course corrections.
  5. Root out confirmation bias; look for signs where emotions are playing a role in decision making; teach and model emotional detachment from the chosen path.
  6. Set up an informal competition for finding weak signals.
  7. Face emerging data with objectivity.

As you continue to adapt your business model to capitalize on the new normal, you and your team will benefit from developing conceptual flexibility and taking a higher road versus becoming endangered.


Grant W. Levitan is a senior partner in the Chicago office. For more than 30 years, Grant has brought wise counsel to executives, helping them to lead change, prepare for globalization, and move into the CEO chair.
Dr. Eric H. Prensky is a partner in the San Francisco office. Eric has a track record of success in assisting global and regional firms in executive assessment and development and senior team effectiveness.


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