Make your organization antifragile
In his seminal 2012 book, scholar and author Nassim Nicholas Taleb coined the term “antifragility” to describe a phenomenon where a system, organism or organization thrives in the face of shocks, volatility, profound mistakes or attacks. Fundamentally different from resilience and robustness, Taleb theorized that organizations demonstrate anti-fragility when they can learn fast from current conditions and adapt in a way that allows them to take advantage of volatility. In many ways, this perspective has become more relevant than ever as organizations chart a future course in a pandemic world.
Learning and failing fast, adapting to conditions, finding the hidden opportunities in adversity: there are many examples where businesses on the brink of disaster came back, bigger and better than before. Like Toyota. In 2009, the Japanese automaker was rocked by the biggest recall in automotive manufacturing history and supply chain problems that shook the company’s very foundations. By 2013, however, Toyota was bigger and more profitable than it was before the recalls. Company officials credited a culture where employees throughout the organization were indoctrinated in rapid problem solving. Manufacturing and supply chains were fixed, sales and marketing rebranded the company, and the future was once again bright.
Bake accountability into your culture
In August of 2008, Maple Leaf Foods—a century-old Canadian meat and value-added food company—discovered an outbreak of a deadly bacteria in a huge Toronto-based processing plant. Before all the tainted products could be recalled, 57 became seriously ill, 22 of whom later died. It was a nightmarish scenario for the venerable company, one that could have led to its destruction.
Enter Maple Leaf Foods President Michael McCain. In the hours after the food recall was initiated, McCain took a lead role in not only admitting the mistakes his family’s company had made in managing the Toronto plant but in wholeheartedly and unreservedly apologizing for the deaths and illnesses that followed. In a series of emails sent out to every employee in the company that were later widely published in news media, McCain refused to blame government regulations or food inspectors and assumed the mantle of liability on behalf of the company. In one note, he actually tells employees that he refused to meet with the company’s lawyers before speaking publicly because “they counsel people not to take responsibility.”
McCain’s personal sense of accountability is now credited as a leading reason why his family’s company survived the tainted food crisis and continued to grow and thrive. Even today, McCain and other executives from his company are asked to go to business schools all over the world to talk to students about the essence of personal and organizational accountability.
Make sure Elvis is in the building
Bono, the iconic lead singer of U2, has had success as a philanthropist largely because of his ability to win an audience with the world’s greatest and most powerful leaders, and then convince them to support a range of worthy causes. And Bono isn’t just trading on his celebrity; over a lifetime of asking and being turned down for things, he has developed his own theory of power structures and how they can be convinced to change.
In the 2005 book “Bono,” Bono tells author-journalist Michka Assayas that before he meets with any new organization, he asks two questions. The first was “who can stop this from happening? I wanted to meet the people who could roadblock us.” The second question was, “who’s the Elvis here? In whatever area I was, I wanted to know who’s the boss, who’s the capo di tutticapi (the change agents) here?”
To generate change and cultivate support within a particular organization, Bono said it is essential to defuse your opponents, while empowering the agents of change.
Many organizations steer clear of addressing cultural shortfalls because it’s an enormous issue with many moving parts and no clear and easy solution. In some instances, culture goes unaddressed because it is inconvenient for organizations and their leaders. In both instances, the failure to examine organizational culture and confront weaknesses only sustains the behaviors and attitudes—immaturity and ignorance—that are preventing an individual company from being better.
A company cannot just be defined by a series of processes. It is also a living, breathing thing with beliefs, emotions, and—sometimes—blind spots that its people demonstrate. Rebuilding or rejuvenating culture can be the first step to a better performing organization. And despite our current travails, if we learn as much as possible from past examples and apply the lessons to future challenges, a crisis can be an excellent opportunity to build a culture that is built for the long term.
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