Playing Into the Wind:Even when the environment dictates, change is hard
Yesterday, I watched my high school alma mater compete in the NJ Group III State soccer championship. The game was an evenly matched, well-fought contest that resulted in a 0-0 tie and the crowning of State Co-Champions.
What was more remarkable than the game, however, was the environment in which it was played. It was cold. Really cold. And windy. Really windy. A strong, persistent wind blew all game directly downfield into one of the goals.
Goal kicks into the wind went about 35 yards in the air and then came straight down as if they had hit a wall. It made it nearly impossible to play any balls in the air for the team playing into the wind. Yet, that’s exactly what each of these teams kept trying to do. Goal kicks, punts, offensive lobs all were launched into the teeth of this stiff wind, each with the same result — the ball would go nowhere and possession was lost. It was frustrating to watch.
Watching the game, it seemed obvious what they needed to do. You just wanted the kids on the field to take stock of their environment, decide they shouldn’t fight it, and change their approach to start playing the ball on the ground. Knit together some one-two passes, a through-ball here and there. But they didn’t. Each of the players knew how challenging the wind was but as a team they couldn’t collectively adapt to the environment. Recognizing the need to do something different isn’t the hard part. Translating that need into action is.
Companies, particularly large established players, are increasingly finding themselves playing into the wind. Startups and new technologies are disrupting more and more industries at a faster and faster pace. And all too often, big companies fail to adapt their approaches to the new environments they find themselves in.
They know they have to change. They hold all manner of ‘open innovation’ workshops and several are beginning to tout ‘lean startup’ principles. These are all good things. Recognizing the need to change is the first step to actually changing. But they still find it hard to adapt, to alter their behavior and to change tack in meaningful ways. It’s frustrating to watch.
So why do companies and high-school soccer players continue to kick into the wind? Generally, I think it comes down to two traits:
- Muscle memory — a trait operating at the individual level where, in the heat of competition, people default to practiced and trusted behaviors. Defenders in soccer, who have always cleared the ball with big booming kicks upfield, revert back to that known behavior when the pressure is on. Individual contributors in large companies know they can be successful and get good performance reviews by doing what’s worked in the past. So that’s exactly what they end up doing. Despite the growing “embrace failure” messaging in corporate America, it’s going to take time for employees to actually deviate from their entrenched behaviors.
- Organizational readiness — a trait operating at the team level where even if an individual knows that kicking into the wind doesn’t make sense, his teammates haven’t positioned themselves to receive balls on the ground. This is all too common in large companies where individuals, or small forward-looking teams, know they need to do things differently, but can’t get the larger organizational resources or cover to do them. They find it hard to successfully spread innovation practices to the larger company because it requires other folks to adjust their behavior. The organization at the system level just isn’t ready to adapt its style of play.
Fueled by increases in both technological capability and capital availability, the winds of change are certainly blowing. The world is becoming far more asymmetric and easily disrupted. Established companies face all sorts of new threats from smaller non-traditional players. And their established practices just aren’t as successful in this new environment. Recognizing change is one thing, adapting to it is another. Those teams that can read the wind and actually adapt their style of play stand a far better chance of weathering the storm than if they continue to simply kick into the wind