• Karla Robertson

Think With Agility To Avoid Becoming Obsolete

Updated: Oct 30, 2019



Blockbuster. Sears. Kodak. Macy’s. Toys R Us. Borders. Many retail clothing and accessory companies. What do they all have in common besides either being out of business or trying to get off life support? They share the kind of thinking that didn’t move with the evolving environment and developing ecosystem within it. They did not disrupt themselves so others did it for them. They were caught flat-footed and on their heels unable and, in some cases, unwilling to pivot their thinking and thus their company in time.

A recent Inc. article speaks to this very old tale of great success and domination of a market segment only to deflate and be an image in the market’s rearview mirror, fading away as it’s left behind. The article’s writer, Martin Zwilling, cites the book Reinventing the Organization by Arthur Yeung and David Ulrich. He then shares 6 points of theirs along with some of his own insights. Worth reading.


What I would like to add to the picture they paint and the detail they lay out has to do with our brains and how we think. What keeps decision-makers stuck in the same lane of thinking and doing when their operating environment, climate and competition is changing all around them? When they engage in this mind trap, they run the risk of creating the liability of obsolescence (the growing mismatch between internal thinking, strategies, product, services and the external operating environment).


Neuroscience shows us that our brains are pattern-seeking machines that crave certainty. Certainty allows us to predict what’s going to happen next. When we stay with what is known, that creates more certainty because we know how it’s going to turn out. Except that’s only true as long as our environment stays the same. Increasingly, though, the expiration date of what works comes faster and faster. This kind of thinking will not sustain today’s and tomorrow’s businesses and hasn’t for some time now. The velocity of change and constant disruption and innovation driven by technology and borderless sharing of knowledge has made a change-resistant leadership mindset and corporate culture a death sentence for an organization.


How do successful executives prepare themselves to stay on their mental toes so they can pivot or at least stay agile in their thinking, open to incoming data that will help them make the right decisions at the right time?

1. Be Not Afraid: Fear is a good consultant but not a good leader. Listen to what your anxiety and fear are telling you. In there is the truth and the truth is that if you resist change because you are comfortable where you are and it took a lot to get there, there’s a very good chance you are missing great opportunities. Understand your fears; then invest in working with someone to help you glean what they are trying to tell you rather than be led by them.

2. Be Curious: Pay attention to how your mind works. Do you find that you don’t ask many probing questions and what comes from you are decisions and direction born from avoiding new information? How do you handle incoming information from people that flies in the face of what is currently working well? How much time and energy do you invest in talking to people smarter than you about what’s on the horizon that could affect your portfolio, business model, supply chain, customer base.

3. Engage Great Minds: If you read my article on The Executive Lie, you will know what this is about. No leader has all the answers or can be aware of all the moving parts. Divide and conquer. Create and invest in a team, for example, whose only purpose is to research and keep the organization, and you, ahead of the curve and tuned into shifting trends. Note I don’t say knee-jerk reactive to shifting trends…be aware of them and assess what they mean to your business.

4. Trust Iteration: Train your brain to love testing and learning. Try, learn, try, learn, try, learn, succeed! There is a time for things to be perfect (brain surgery) and times when good enough is good enough (releasing an iPhone) Get out of your and your team’s heads and make ideas real. Test the best ones out and keep tweaking. At least 50% of inventions that come to market happened by accident. This means welcome mistakes, accidents and serendipity. This will teach your brain to think laterally and creatively.

5. Get out on the Street: Go to conferences, exchange ideas, read, talk to people at the street level. Go undercover if you need to. Find out the current truths about your product, service, customer experience and how they use what you sell.


In an article I recently read, the author hypothesizes, the rate of change is accelerating in direct proportion to the speed of the exchange of information and ideas. This makes sense to me. It seems then, that it is mission critical that we make it a priority in our education programs and executive development to build our mental agility to stay connected to the shifting landscape and build a flexible workforce that can pivot into our next evolution.


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