How to make agility your advantage in business and thrive in times of change
In times of relentless change and uncertainty, we often have to adapt to working with limited resources.
But instead of reinventing the wheel, why not look to people who have done just that forever?
When I was 18, I travelled overland through the East, starting in India and winding my way through China, Siberia, and all the way back home to western Europe by train. I saw and lived many extraordinary things on that trip, but one experience really stands out: the time I spent with Mongolian nomads living in gers (yurts).
Along with their herds of horses they criss-cross the steppe, seeking fresh grasses in one of the driest places on earth. Mongolia can reach +50C in summer and -50C in winter, and any vegetables have to be imported from China, then preserved to last. In short, It’s a hard life.
But it’s also a life full of joy and treasure. My hosts’ ger was filled with handpainted beds and chairs decorated with intricate flower motifs, gorgeous silk rugs and hangings — all family heirlooms and gifts. They had few possessions and tools but each was precious and cared for.
Re-learn how to follow what’s alive
The Mongolian Nomads have been on my mind a lot recently, but not because I miss travelling. I’ve been thinking of how to apply the nomadic principle to modern business.
The principle is this: Follow what’s alive — the sun, the seasons, the water, the new growth.
Those who live by this principle accept that our world is a sea of ever-changing sands, and that the best foundation to build on sand is not a castle or a fortress, but a tent.
For decades, we’ve been told to build castles, literal and metaphorical — “build it and they will come”. In the entrepreneurship world, we’re encouraged to think of ourselves as “empire-builders” — that bigger is always better, and that success means a high headcount and an expensive corner office.
Those are precisely the kinds of castles that are having their foundations rocked right now.
When the world is constantly changing and sands are shifting, we need to be able to adapt to thrive with fewer constants, just like nomads. We need to be able to discern what is our true treasure from what is excess baggage and move to follow what’s alive.
Travel lighter in your work
This crazy year of 2020 may be the collective lesson we’ve needed to remind us to travel lighter. It’s unlikely the world is going to get less crazy in the years and decades to come. Expect even fewer constants and ever-more shifting sands. This might seem like doom and gloom, but I don’t believe it needs to be.
If something is on the decline — a market, an industry, a tried-and-tested strategy — it means there is new life and growth elsewhere that’s harnessing that energy. So pack up, pick up your tent, and move on. Follow what is alive.
We know how to live like this. The Nomadic Principle is in our human DNA, encoded in our cells, programmed through our nervous system. It’s our nature. We’re Homo Sapiens: designed to be on the move, leaving behind what’s dead and depleted and using our intuition and creative cunning to seek out fresh growth.
It’s simply a question of remembering how, and the ones who remember fastest will be the ones who thrive.
How to design your business to withstand all seasons
Uncertainty is part and parcel of the human experience: macrocycles of contraction and expansion, slow seasons, economic recessions and Black Swan events completely outside your control will show up. What you can control is how you adapt to them — structurally, emotionally and financially.
Ask yourself: how can I design my business as a light-weight, hardy tent for all seasons, filled with beautiful treasure?
I’m not saying sell everything you own and move to Bali to be a ‘Digital Nomad’ (although, hey, I’m not stopping you!) What I mean is take a look around and think: am I still trying to build a castle on sand where I should be pitching a tent?
- Are you investing in assets, infrastructure or materials that you could borrow, rent or do without instead?
- Is your marketing approach reliant on just one channel or constant, for instance, people walking past your shop, or using Facebook?
- Does your business model’s success rely on things staying exactly as they are today?
- Are you unconsciously sliding towards adding more complexity or cost to your monthly outgoings because “that’s how things are normally done”?
If you’re a small business, your small-ness and agility can be turned into an incredible advantage if you embrace it. Sometimes, your unconventional advantage is so powerful, you win the market.
In the science-fiction novel Dune, the Fremen of Arrakis are dismissed by the Imperial powers as a primitive and unthreatening people who mysteriously survive out in the desert on a planet with no source of water.
But in reality, their discretion and ritualistic discipline serve to shield their incredible technology and creative resourcefulness, which they are using to plan an underground revolution. Woefully underestimated by the seemingly insurmountable imperial forces, the Fremen ultimately take back power over their planet.
Be more Fremen. Re-learn the Nomadic Principle. Follow what’s alive.
Some further reading
In my opinion, these books give some valuable insight into how to follow the Nomadic Principle in business.
Company of One by Paul Jarvis — Why keeping your business deliberately small, simple and highly profitable is the secret to a richer, more meaningful life.
Profit First by Mike Michalowicz (Author of Profit First) –– “Revenue is vanity, profit is sanity, and cash is king”. Take your profit first, only then focus on growth — if you even need it for success.
Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard. –– The ultimate business manual on “business unusual”: resourcefulness, self-imposed ethical constraints and epic imagination from the founder of B-corp outdoor brand Patagonia.
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