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Thoughts: Surfers of Change

28 April 2009 No Comment

I can’t wait to read the book I read about in this morning’s New York Times review,  “The Need to Adapt Quickly, in Joshua Cooper Ramo’s ‘Age of the Unthinkable’.”

In The Age of the Unthinkable, Joshua Cooper Ramo argues that

today’s complex, interconnected, globalized world requires policy makers willing to toss out old assumptions (about cause and effect, deterrence and defense, nation states and balances of power) and embrace creative new approaches. Today’s world, he suggests, requires resilient pragmatists who, like the most talented Silicon Valley venture capitalists on the one hand or the survival-minded leadership of Hezbollah on the other, possess both an intuitive ability to see problems in a larger context and a willingness to rejigger their organizations continually to grapple with ever-shifting challenges and circumstances.

In other words: dexterity on a grand scale.

That’s a tall order under the best of times.  In our current environment, everyone may be willing to “rejigger their organizations”  (albeit under duress), but the instinct tends more toward hunkering down than taking bold action — let alone instituting dexterity as corporate policy.

Yet bold action is precisely the difference between leveraging a downturn and merely weathering one, writes James Surowiecki in a recent New Yorker column.  In a nutshell, his point is this:

numerous studies have shown that companies that keep spending on acquisition, advertising, and R. & D. during recessions do significantly better than those which make big cuts.

And he backs it up with famous examples from several downturns over the past century. What’s more, those companies’ gains last for decades.

It’s no surprise companies don’t use downturns as game-changing opportunities more often.  Fear is a paralyzing agent.  But, while that served our animal forebears well —  the motionless gazelle safely blending into its surroundings — it prevents us from succeeding — freezing us like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle.

It’s not enough to “embrace change” (a phrase that always strikes me as akin to ending hostilities by shaking the hand of your former enemy).  Today’s leaders are those whose attitudes are more like surfers of change, learning everything they can about a wide range of subjects — from surfing wax to ocean currents — so that when the big one comes along they know everything they might need to ride that wave in in triumph.  Everyone else just doesn’t drown.

Photo credit: Michelle Dennis

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