Spring has lasted longer this year than I can ever remember. It warmed up in February and has stayed nice and comfortable ever since. All too often we just jump from winter into summer, with hardly any time for Spring. It’s tempting to wish for this weather to continue forever.
Quito, Ecuador, has this kind of weather all year round. Working there was simply delightful. The weather is just heaven. If you’re close to the equator and at the right altitude, you can have spring-like weather all year. With perfect weather, you’d think the locals would be happy and productive and engaged. They aren’t. Places with perfect weather all year round have less productive and engaged citizens. They are among the poorest countries in the world.
Minnesota has eight months of winter and three months of blackflies, yet many residents are happy, productive and engaged and wouldn’t live anywhere else. All of Northern Europe is chilly and cloudy and generally miserable most of the year, yet it’s citizens have historically been more productive and engaged than any in the world.
Changing and challenging weather lays a foundation for the ability to adapt and innovate in response to any disturbance. Systems which have been exposed to periodic disturbance develop an adaptive capacity to absorb periodic change. This is not the case with systems which experience extreme events infrequently.
Adaptation to disturbance and change causes systems to increase their response diversity leading to even higher abilities to withstand and adapt to change.
Temperate forests can survive and thrive in extreme and extremely variable weather. Tropical forests have high levels of diversity, but not of response diversity. Cold temperatures wipe out tropical forests as they have multiple times in our planet’s history. Temperate forests respond and adapt to changes to cold or hot climates. Change to a colder climate may cause a temperate forest to seemingly disappear, but often the seeds of trees remain dormant and the temperate forest rebounds when the climate moderates.
The temperate forest has worked out a multitude of responses and mechanisms of adaptation which enable it to survive and thrive in conditions where the tropical forest disappears.
The same is true in human organizations. Organizations that survive and thrive are quick to read and act on signals of change. They have worked out how to experiment rapidly, frequently, and economically—not only with products and services but also with business models, processes, and strategies. They have built up skills in managing complex multistakeholder systems in an increasingly interconnected world.
The tropical forest depends on an essentially stable environment to survive. Many large, established organizations have built their operations around scale and efficiency—sources of advantage that rely on an essentially stable environment.
Nokia once dominated the smartphone market with scale and efficiency. It was the market share leader with a strong cost position. But Nokia was attacked by an entirely different kind of competitor: Apple’s adaptive system of suppliers, telecom partnerships, and numerous independent application developers, created to support the iPhone. Google’s Android operating system, too, capitalized on a broad array of hardware partners and application developers. The ability to bring together the assets and capabilities of so many entities allowed these smartphone entrants to leapfrog the experience curve and become new market leaders in record time. As Stephen Elop, Nokia’s CEO, wrote in a memo to his staff, “Our competitors aren’t taking our market share with devices; they are taking our market share with an entire ecosystem.”
Organizations are learning to be adaptive like the temperate forest and not depend on stability, scale and efficiency. The resilient system is seldom the most efficient, the biggest, or the most stable. In fact, efficiency, size and stability can all undermine resilience when conditions change.
As much as I’d like Spring to hang on forever, I don’t really want it to. I like adapting to Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter. Bring on change. We glory in it.