Recent management fads have stressed the importance of “adapting to a changing environment.” It is a mantra of the green movement, and one finds reference to it in newspapers, magazines, and in casual conversations.

What is wrong with adapting? The problem with the notion of adaptation is that it implies a reactive approach to change.

Just a few short decades ago, adapting might have been good enough, but due to globalization and the higher interdependencies between people and societies, the environment, technology… the rate of change has increased and continues to increase.

In this new world of accelerated change the age-old practice of adaptation is no longer enough to assure the survival of a species or of an organization. By the time a system has adapted to one set of changes, there is a new set of changes confronting and challenging the system.

Biologists have noted that as the rate of environmental change increases, more and more animal species go extinct, despite their ability to adapt. A similar phenomenon can be seen in business. Although businesses work hard to adapt, a greater and greater number of them are closing or in need of external life support. This is because the needs of the market are changing faster than an organizations ability to adapt to that change. As a result, organizations end up trying to serve needs that have come and gone. They are simply too late.

The American car manufacturing industry is a good example. American car manufacturers were adapting their cars to the current needs of the market. By the time all of the research and development, engineering, process development and manufacturing were done, the needs of the market had changed; and as we all know, many American car manufacturers are candidates for bankruptcy.

Another example is the newspaper industry. As the world of media continues to change at increasing levels, newspapers used to just adapting are closing at an alarming rate. (10 US metropolitan dailies have gone “extinct” in the last 12 months and many more are “endangered”) Further evidence can be found in a Pew Research Center study which recently found that less than 1/3 of Americans would even miss reading their newspaper if it were no longer available. ( Clearly the effort of these newspapers to adapt to their market has not kept up with the changing needs of their market.

So what should be done instead of adapting in order to survive?

Well, we need to pro-act. We need to predict the changes that we will face in the future and take action in the present to be ready for them.

It sounds simple, right? So why are so many organizations unable to do this?

To pro-act one needs the willpower and capability to act when the danger is still in the future; when it is not being felt yet (as opposed to adapting which is when the danger is felt in the present).

For organizations, it is not just the willpower of the leader that is necessary to pro-act, but rather, it requires that the willpower of all the necessary political factions be aligned in their support of what needs to be done. To make this happen, these political factions have to share the same evaluation of the future threat and share the same interest to act.

As our problems are becoming more and more global, they require more and more parties with conflicting interests and assessments of future dangers to agree and cooperate. It is difficult to garner such agreement. It is a slow process. In the meantime, changes are accelerating, so the amount of time we have to pro-act, adapt or even react to problems is getting shorter and shorter.

In addition to willpower, an organization must have the capability to pro-act. Too many organizations intend to facilitate change with good intentions and elaborate mission statements. This is much like a boat captain who intends to steer his boat by screaming, “left!” They can scream all they like but the boat will not turn until the power on the right is increased and the power on the left is decreased. An organization is similar to a boat in that it is a power structure. In order to pro-act, an organization needs a structure that is able to transfer power from one division to the other while managing risk.

Aligning willpower and developing the capability of the organization to pro-act poses a critical challenge to businesses in these rapidly changing times. It is overcoming this challenge, the evolutionary hurdle of moving from adapting to pro-acting, that will assure the survival of an organization into the future.

This is precisely the purpose of the Adizes methodology, to help organizations overcome this hurdle by giving them the tools to consciously and proactively change.

So please don’t adapt, pro-act.

Shoham Adizes