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Emerging Leaders: updating adaptability in a disrupted market

Emerging Leaders: updating adaptability in a disrupted market

Former Lonely Planet executive director, founder, investor and mentor Gus Balbontin offers his business advice

Gus Balbontin

Gus Balbontin

Credit: IDG

When building a business, momentum is usually seen as a good thing, right? Well, perhaps not, if the advice by the keynote speaker of this year’s annual Emerging Leaders forum is anything to go by. 

Former Lonely Planet executive director, founder, investor and mentor Gus Balbontin, who spoke during the ARN Emerging Leaders forum, held on 16 June, cautioned attendees to steer clear of momentum. 

“When you do the same thing over and over again you build momentum,” Balbontin said during the event. “And we often tend to associate momentum with a positive thing; we think momentum is actually great. 

“But I always say to people, ‘be very careful,’ because momentum is great while your momentum and the customer [are both] pointing in the same direction. The moment your customer changes direction, your momentum is actually deadly. 

“It’s the opposite of having agility. Because you build so much of it, you’re doing the same thing over and over again that you can’t shift that momentum away into the direction of the customer,” he said.

Balbontin’s comments came amid a period of uncertainty and disruption caused by measures to stem the spread of COVID-19 in the local market. From Balbontin’s perspective, such a business environment calls for even more importance to be placed on adaptability than usual. 

“This current pandemic is a big reminder of the importance of adaptability,” he said. “We tend to underestimate adaptability. We tend to think of it in the sense that businesses need adaptability, but don’t forget that businesses are the sum of us.”

As such, adaptability is not just something that a business, as an entity, has to have, according to Balbontin. Adaptability is actually something that each of us, as the individuals that make up a business, have to have as well. If we aren’t adaptable on an individual level, the business itself will struggle to be adaptable. 

“If everyone in that network, in that company, has adaptability personally, then the sum of its parts is an adaptable business,” he said. 

Adaptation vs exaptation

In fact, Balbontin took his thoughts on adaptability further, suggesting that, in a disrupted business environment such as the one many organisations are still grappling with now in the wake of COVID-19, organisations need to be thinking about exaptation.

“Exaptation is a biological term, and it means, effectively, forced adaptation,” Balbontin said. “In the current scenario with the pandemic, we don’t have the choice to ask ‘should I adapt or not?’”

“Right now, there is no choice, right now it’s exaptation,” he added.

The best way to think about exaptation is to think about the wing of a penguin, Balbontin noted. The wing evolved and adapted over a long period of time to fly and then it got exapted, forced, into swimming.

In the current scenario that businesses are in, Balbontin claimed, it’s not adaptation that businesses are engaging in as they work to stay afloat amid the pandemic crisis, it is actually exaptation. 

“Something such as a capability you have in your business all of a sudden was forced to do something else,” Balbontin said. “And you’ve [probably] seen examples of that in the last few months.”

But, Balbontin warned, it is important for those organisations in the midst of a forced adaptation, or exaptation, process to always keep at least one part of their business somewhat grounded.

“Remember, pivots always require one leg on the ground,” Balbontin said. “Normally in the process of survival, recovery and opportunity you need to have at least one foot on the ground so you can pivot and move and shift, so make sure you control some bits and pieces as you move into exaptation.”

Pulling up concrete

One way to ensure a business can pivot when needed without too much effort or creating any major collateral damage in the process is to avoid “laying concrete”, as Balbontin puts it, referring to systems, processes and procedures that have become deeply entrenched within a company and difficult to change, even if change is urgently need. 

“Once we put a procedure in place, a process in place, a system in place, something that we’ve managed to organise and structure in such a way that works, the first thing we do is we tend to pour concrete over it,” Balbontin said.

“In technology, we’re really well known for this; we tend to implement these massive, monolithic software and systems....but once we put them in place...often what happens is that the system that you concrete, that works really beautifully and well, ends up owning you, rather than you owning the system,” he said. 

While Balbontin noted that organisations used to do this a lot more in the past and things are now changing as organisations start to realise it’s necessarily the best idea to lay such ‘concrete’ in a dynamic market. 

However, there is still a danger that such entrenched systems can control everything an organisation does.

Read more on the next page...


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