Assimilation is futile: how to thrive in an ever-changing world

Written by
Changeboard Team

03 Sep 2015

03 Sep 2015 • by Changeboard Team

Reinvent yourself

If you grew up tuning into BBC2 every Wednesday evening, you too may have lived in fear of The Borg. For those not of the Trekkie persuasion, The Borg was a collection of species that had been turned into drones and assimilated into a hive mind. Their ultimate goal? “Achieve perfection”. Their mantra? “Resistance is futile”. They appeared as antagonists many times across the Star Trek franchise – faced with threats they were well-nigh invincible. But not entirely so. Their eventual and sudden collapse was entirely predictable, yet also shocking. The very strengths that had made them successful in the past actually accelerated their demise.

Right now, businesses are facing their own Borg-moment. Experiencing unprecedented challenges at an unparalleled rate of change, every assumption is in question – how they make money, what their customer expects and what motivates their people. They must fundamentally reinvent themselves. Many big businesses are acting like the Borg – trying to assimilate the threat and turn it into something less threatening that they can understand without really changing.

Think about how taxi businesses are responding to Uber. Rather than accepting that customers want the model Uber is offering, they try to assimilate the threat: forcing Uber to play on their terms; using outdated regulations and legal loopholes to slow down the Uber juggernaut’s progress.The same is happening in other industries; retail banks are struggling to change how they make money from customers, hoping better service will be enough; utilities and insurance firms are in a death spiral of trying to win through price. These companies haven’t worked out how to capitalise on the trusted customer relationships they have – that trust is being eroded as new competitors offer customers better experiences and better value. Why do traditional players respond like this? The answer lies in the fundamentals of human psychology. When faced with something new or threatening, we respond in one of two ways:
respond in one of two ways:

• Assimilation – we try to integrate the new thing within our existing schema of reality.

• Adaption – we allow the new thing to change our schema of reality and set about adapting everything else to fit this new reality.

Assimilation is actually an effective strategy. It allows us to act fast, stay focused and move forward without compromise. Adaption is a more ‘risky’ process. It requires us to place fundamental assumptions (‘knowledge’) about our world in question – the same assumptions that have made us successful to date. We all understand that change is necessary, even inevitable. But letting change change us and our underlying belief systems is very challenging, at both an organisational and a personal level. Think about the number of leaders in your organisation whose years of experience and knowledge are actively working against them as they face market disruption.

In today’s business environment, assimilation is no longer the rightmodel. Just ask the folks who worked at Kodak, Blockbuster, and others. The old business response to change was ‘change management’ – an assimilative approach that essentially means not changing.

Today we face discontinuous change, where only adaption will work. Rather than try to manage the change, we must find out how to change ourselves. A few storied companies make change a fundamental part of their commercial and cultural model. So what have they done that we have seen work well for others too?

1.Start changing now. Don’t wait to change until you have to – it will be too late. The only way to get your timing right will be to create a culture of adaption, rather than waiting until the platform is alight. This is not going to be a one-off activity or programme. This next era of business is going to require people to unlearn, learn, and then unlearn again. Start practising now.

2 Adapt the core, not just the edges. The current vogue for innovation labs is comforting because it feels like tangible action in the face of the unknown. But very few of these are generating commercial value or broad new capabilities. The core business and people operating within it are not going to have the luxury of trundling on as they always have. Focus there too. Arguably it’s a harder job.
3 Embrace ambidextrous thinking. What has made humans successful is the conflicts and tensions that drive our behaviour. Organisations are no different – we want purpose beyond profit, but we are a business and need to make money; we want to take risks and grow, but have responsibilities and a need to maintain efficiency and control; we want to adapt to a disruptive market, but retain the core of what made us successful before. The problem with many change efforts is they focus on one side of these tensions (making them feel theoretical or uncommercial). Get real about these tensions and sweat them. That’s where sustainable impact will come from.

4 Get more of your people to come to work. It’s not about improving your absenteeism rate, it’s about getting to know your people deeply, and each other more broadly. What makes them tick? What do they value? How do they learn?
The key to collaboration is connection – get your people spending more time meeting new people in your organisation and becoming comfortable with them. That way they just might pick up the phone and risk looking stupid the next time they are faced with a situation where the old answers won’t work.

5 Make change the point. Of course it’s commercial success that is driving the need for change, and it’s a critical measure of whether we are pulling it off. But no sooner will we have learnt the new formula for success than it will likely be out-of-date. So, yes, be proud of the results you are achieving; but make your ultimate measure of success the confidence, readiness and courage of your people when faced with change. That’s going to be the difference between success and failure. 

In the face of the inevitable disruption ahead, don’t be the Borg but do remember ‘resistance is futile’. Make like The Federation instead. Lock in a strategic, stretching and inspiring purpose – and be prepared to adapt everything else in the pursuit of that purpose. And in that way we hope that you too will live long and prosper.