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Become deeply adaptable today, or else

THE ADAPTIVE CO: This week changed it all. We now know recovery will take long, as the COVID Restricted Economy is on.

Waiting for the Grand Ave. reopening in LA, which as in all major cities is unlikely to be grand. (Joey Zanotti in Flickr, creative commons)

As a business leader, you simply cannot afford not to adapt at this point, not with what we now know about how long it will take for some normalcy to return post-COVID.

It won’t be a few weeks or months. This week settled that paralyzing speculation. You can no longer simply hold on for dear life while the dust settles and implement temporary measures, however effective they’ve been so far.

After this week, we know it will take way longer than that. We have entered the COVID Restricted Economy, and it requires another response gear. To go the distance will take what can be called deep adaptability, to borrow the Deep Adaptation lexicon — by everyone in the organization, enterprise-wide.

Everyone everywhere must be adaptable, independently and collaboratively, above all immediately, because the road is long, and the price to be paid by companies that fail to become this deeply and rapidly adaptive is steep.

But it’s not just playing defense. Go on offense, as well. This is a path paved with opportunities, to be the brand not just left standing, but standing tall, not just from COVID-19, but from whatever the climate throws at you from now on — where you emerge more responsive and innovative, perhaps even launching new products and services to meet people’s needs.

This is hope with realism, the latter to understand that the coronavirus doesn’t just present you with a historically unique challenge right now, but it is also the first of many globally (not just locally) disruptive climate events for which you must start getting ready. The smart move is for your COVID response to be that start, but for that, for you to take the right adaptive steps today, you must have realistic, data-based expectations.

And the hope? To have everyone in your organization build the faith and optimism that you will emerge victorious from all these events, even as they become increasingly more disruptive.

So c’mon, leader. Lead. In a different direction. Starting NOW. Here’s how.

The ESG edge

The particulars vary, naturally, by company, industry and location. That’s precisely why it takes adaptability, which is attitude combined with capability, an openness to the excitement of risk and uncertainty combined with the skill and empowerment to act on the spot and make the judgment calls that manage situations successfully as they unfold. It has become the primary skillset for the Age of Climate Adaptation we are in.

If you’re an ESG company, you have a clear edge, since you have ingrained sustainability and best Environmental Social and Governance practices over the years, enough to earn a place in the thriving $35 trillion ESG investment market and the trust of portfolio managers.

That’s why this is the time for you to lead on adaptation, and you now have the C-CAM model and the TCFD framework to make the process far easier and way faster. If you’re not ESG, think of COVID-19 as the spark to go for it. You’ve set up teams to manage the crisis — start there!

E and S signal that you care about planet and people and back up your conscience with visionary programs and initiatives. As we’re seeing with COVID-19, that is a huge fundamental.

The G, your governance, your approach to leadership, might be an even bigger ingredient when it comes to pivoting to this new variety of deep adaptability — from the focus you’ve had up to now on slashing emissions, preserving biodiversity, and otherwise solving climate change, to a new focus on preparing for and recovering from climate impacts (like COVID) already upon us and the inevitable ones to come.

That’s because deep adaptability doesn’t happen automatically. It does for some people, but not for most, and you want it in everyone everywhere across the company. So you must trigger it, nurture it, deliberately, culturally, institutionally, and that requires a certain organizational constitution. Your ESG practices and mindset give you a head start, and there is no better time than now to shoot higher.

So let’s begin. The immediate priority is the coronavirus. Stretching your company’s response and adaptability for another couple of years of COVID takes two things simultaneously: an action agenda and communications. There is simply no time to do the first before starting the second. Both must happen at the same time.

An action agenda

So far, you’ve been managing the immediate as we all wait for the economy to reopen. But we learned this week in this definitive article what that reopening will likely look like and why we must all go back to the drawing board and deepen the action agenda. We also learned from this one by Bill Gates how long it it will likely take for medicine to eliminate the COVID risk altogether. Articles like this one, this one and this one offer a deeper glimpse.

The restaurant example is particularly daunting and illustrates what every company, no matter your size and industry, must now adapt to. Operationally, as a local economy begins to reopen, you must put in place the most rigorous possible kitchen and supply-chain practices to give customers and employees the confidence they won’t be infected. Dining-area distancing and cleaning practices, too. As you do, show customers real-time via cameras in your kitchen. Provide education on your website and via direct email and social media. And more.

The creativity, discipline and consistency required, the sweet spot between supervision and autonomy, to sustain such an effort for as long as it takes in every business unit, and to launch this level immediately — well, that’s what we’re talking about.

Multiply that by all your locations, with the varying economy-opening pace and policies, and across all your suppliers, for 18 months or more, and you can see the next-level complexity — and therefore how fast you need to move on this agenda and how thoroughly you need to delegate and empower across the organization, if you expect your company to have a shot at being among the winners.

And it’s not just on your end. For the coronavirus to remain in check across geographies and not rekindle and explode anew, customers themselves must act with rigorous discipline. So must your competitors and every business in all industries.

So you also have to engage in customer education, trade associations, policy task forces, etc., to be part of a broader systemic solution that is now as critical to your own preservation and profitability as everything you do inside your four walls. Welcome to deep adaptability.

Again, the particulars vary. The starting point, though, is to realize this is not managed with temporary measures for a few weeks of stay-at-home lockdowns. The restrictions under any reopening scenario change the game, vary per location, and will vary over time.

That is the nature of this virus. It is too aggressive and will not go away soon. Defeating it takes rolling restrictions, and to navigate those restrictions takes a bottom-up, empowerment-driven cultural approach to enterprise-wide decision-making across your organization, along with smart top-down direction and strategy. That level, in such a tight time frame, calls now for the second part of the equation.

Enterprise-wide communications

Start with internal and direct comm to prep your people and stakeholders, and then direct your messaging at customers and the public. Your company may have to do both at once. Ideally, though, you want internal and direct to precede.

Why? Because the whole point is to deepen the adaptability of everyone everywhere across your organization, so they can then better care for and make smarter autonomous decisions that affect external stakeholders.

Each corporate department manages distinct stakeholders — customers, suppliers and partners, banks and investors, trade associations, community groups, regulators, the media, the general public and others specific to your business. The communication has to be tailored and strategic for each.

For that to be fast and optimized, apply the Five Tasks of internal and direct communications:

  1. Paint a visual picture of what society will be like under all these restrictions and rigorous practices. It’s a natural human bias to shrink from an action when the picture looks blurry or complicated. Simplify and clarify it for them, and notice how much faster everyone will get it and feel empowered to act accordingly.
  2. Deploy smart messaging and creative. You do this for every comm effort. The human dynamics are so particular this time — the level of personal protection and responsibility needed, the humanity of it all, the high stakes, the anxiety, as well as the excitement and optimism mentioned above — that the strategy and execution must be different.
  3. Spark high engagement. This, too, is a tried and true practice, and every good (particularly ESG-driven) HR director knows the 10-or-so levers to pull. But once more, COVID is pushing the agenda, and that calls for communication strategies across those 10-or-so levers to engage everyone everywhere and bring out the deep adaptability in all of them.
  4. Build a deep adaptability culture. This is engagement’s partner, because engagement is needed to build a culture, but culture-building includes other pieces, mainly systems, structures and values. And there’s comm designed for these parts, as well.
  5. Trigger events. Another thing we know from behavior science is that most people, most, do not express what they really feel about a thorny subject. And COVID is a thorny subject! So they remain passive when action is most needed. That is the one thing you do not want across your company. Items 1–4 help bring this out and spark deep adaptability, but research tells us one of the most effective strategies are trigger events within and outside the company. Set up a team to track and insert them in your communications.

The speed and precision with which you must pivot on this requires not just the traditional comm skillset from your agency and in-house team. It also helps if they have the knowledge and instinct to manage natural-disaster and risk-management communications, as well as the behavior-science expertise to know what message and creative hot buttons to push to elicit fast and focused participation by everyone everywhere. So you shouldn’t use just anyone anywhere to do this for you. Select wisely.

What a moment to seize

What an opportunity to grasp! We in the climate space have spent years urging clients to become adaptive, to prepare for the loss of normalcy, given what the climate science is saying. Few of you have.

Even ESG stalwarts, for all their sustainability efforts to solve the crisis, have been slow to embrace the fact that severe events are now inevitable, that the future will be dramatically different from the present and past, and that we must therefore adapt even as we sustain efforts to avoid worse consequences.

Adaptation, that is, has long been the Next Big Thing, the great definer of the future corporation. Given the fundamentals, everyone will have to flock to it at some point. The coronavirus has now thrust that moment upon us. Upon all of us. Globally. Suddenly.

Think of it like the cone of uncertainty provided by weather models when a hurricane approaches. The storm’s path will be within the cone. The probability is greater down the middle than along the edges. But you can’t be too precise until it is upon you and must therefore prepare early and thoroughly and learn to navigate the crisis if you’re anywhere in the cone.

Today, we are all in a global cone of probability, the big difference being that unlike COVID and a hurricane, the overall climate crisis will not end. The high scientific probability, and therefore the one your company should prepare for early and thoroughly, is that the cone is now endless, because there’s no stopping the rise in global temperatures, and as we go deeper into it, climate events will turn ever more frequent and extreme.

Know that you’re somewhere in the cone. Any one of a number of climate events can happen, and does, anywhere at any time. The better you navigate it, the better your chances.

Know also that as the climate warms, it alters both the weather, which creates physical events, and the planet’s biodiversity, which creates health and resource-scarcity events. Both types create profound socioeconomic consequences. Until now, most eyes were on the former. COVID has focused our attention on the latter, as the first catastrophic event with global scale. It was caused because some bats lost their habitat and migrated, which makes it entirely a climate event.

But to be sure, pandemics have always been in the events menu of every serious climate scientist. The warnings have been there for decades. And in fact, the world has seen its share. This one is only different because of its intensity.

And that, somewhat ironically, makes the coronavirus a golden opportunity. Now that you’re taking adaptive action, to be deepened by the advice in this column, do it not just for the virus. Do it for whatever the climate throws at you from now on. Make deep adaptability permanent. Institutionlize it. Embed it in your people management, not just your risk management, or what I call the Human Side of Risk. Create the hope that your company will make it through the cone.

It would be tragic, perhaps in the literal sense of the word, if you succeed battling COVID-19 and then return to the status quo ante and drop the ball, only to be hit by a fire, flood, storm, drought, heat wave, or another coronavirus shortly thereafter. Many times thereafter.

Do not let that happen. Move fast on COVID today, and then stay on it. Turn defense into offense. And never relent.

Alex Díaz, a leading thinker and analyst in the fast-emerging field of corporate climate adaptation, has a long career spanning business journalism, strategic communications, sustainability management, and stakeholder initiatives. He lives in Puerto Rico, at the entrance of the Caribbean hurricane alley, and runs adaptation studio COMMON Future, an affiliate of global social-enterprise collaborative COMMON.

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Alexander Díaz

Alexander Díaz

Pioneering Deep Climate Adaptability as a business value driver and Adaptation Ambition for faster mainstreaming. Because societies adapt only if companies do.