How Adaptation Can Lead to Breakthrough Results

Oftentimes Charles Darwin is quoted as saying “survival of the fittest.”  I think a better description of his scientific work is “survival of the most adaptable.”  Adaptability is becoming even a more valuable skill in this world we describe as VUCA:  volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.  This phrase was first used by the Army War College to describe the modern battlefield.  Since I graduated from West Point wars have become more and more asymmetric.  There is seldom a Forward Edge of the Battle Area or FEBA (meaning opposing forces don’t line up on one side of an imaginary line).  Further, there are two more dimensions to warfare in the modern age:  cyber and space.  Neither was taught when I was a student at West Point.

While all of this is about the need to adapt in warfare, the same is true in business.  The pace of change is so fast that the best laid plans are often outdated by the time they are implemented.  So, what does the ability to be adaptable look like for business leaders?  Does it mean being able to anticipate cash flow issues, changes in employee morale, or the needs of the customer?  The short answer is yes.

Quite often the ability for a leader to be adaptable to change allows a company to create breakthrough results that directly impact a company’s bottom line.  Let’s explore below a real case study from my time at P&G on how our adaptability as leaders helped to create some very special results for the company.

How a Can of Water Revolutionized a Division at P&G?

We, The Procter & Gamble Company, bought Gillette in 2005.  It was a great acquisition, a combination of two strong, consumer-focused companies.  We delivered on both our revenue and cost synergies of the acquisition.  The principle we used in the merger was to “field the best team.”  In my role as Chief Operating Officer of the company, I was interested in identifying best practices of each company and then bringing that best practice forward into the newly integrated company.  We wanted the best approach and didn’t care which company it came from.  We often took the leader of that best practice and made them the leader of it in the newly integrated company.  This took tremendous adaptability of the new organization.  Change was the constant, not a one-off.

One of the processes we studied was the process of innovation.  When we bought Gillette it was a highly centralized company, with the world headquarters in Boston.  Most research and development was done in Boston, unlike P&G which had research and development organizations spread across the world.  Our mantra at P&G was human centered design.  When I traveled I went into consumer homes to watch them use our products with the hope of gleaning some new insight which could help us improve our product offering and improve lives.  This approach necessitated interfacing with the consumer.

In contrast Gillette developed a new razor for developing markets, in particular India, by hiring some Indian students from M. I. T. in Boston to come to their R&D facility in Boston and help them design a new razor.  This new razor underperformed in the market.  Given the underperformance and P&G’s acquisition of Gillette, we sent a team to India to explore why the new razor failed.  Spending time in India gave immediate results and told us how we had to adapt our product offering.  Indian men tend to shave cross-legged on the floor of their home, using a can of water to rinse their razor.  At the time most Indian homes did not have running water all day, water was expensive, so water would be used sparingly.  The can was the way to use less water and to preserve what was used.  The Indian men from M. I. T. had running water which could be used to rinse the razor.

So the trip to India and on the ground R&D resources in developing countries caused us to redesign the razor to make it more rinseable without running water.  This was the breakthrough adaptation we were seeking.  The proof positive again was the need to adapt, the importance of knowing the consumer and their needs in their context, and constantly seeking to delight the consumer.  There is no substitute if you want to improve lives to knowing the person’s life you are trying to improve.

Closing Thoughts and Leadership Resources

All leaders are being counted on to create and sustain results.  So doesn’t it make sense that if you are a business leader you would want to arm yourself with resources to help in this effort?

Explore below some of the more popular topics covered on my website that can help you to create adaptable change in your organization through thoughtful leadership:  What is the Center of Your World Map?, Delivering Consistent, Outstanding Results, Lift Your Leadership to New Heights, McKinsey Leadership Forum Re-Cap, What Makes for a Seamless Leadership Transition, Successful Environments that Attract Winners, and The Most Challenging Role of Being a Leader.

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