Living to Fight Another Day?


Are you Adapting and absorbing are the keys to dealing with difficulty. In ‘How to Thrive in Turbulent Markets’ in the February 2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Donald Sull uses the metaphor of a prize fighter and their skills of adaption and absorption to explain what it takes to overcome challenges. It’s a great article and for the moment can be found online for free.

Recently I’ve come to understand that these two concepts don’t serve the same purpose and aren’t equally important. Absorption only gives you time. Adaption gives you a way out.

At the suggestion of a good friend, I been reading Influencer: The Power to Change Anything by Al Switzler. One of Switzler’s ideas is that absorbing or coping is easier than adapting or influencing. We tend to survive our challenges instead of turning them into opportunities. Here’s how Al said it:

People tend to be better copers than influencers. In fact, we’re wonderful at inventing ways to cope. For instance, at work we abandon our quality-control program and install full-time inspectors. Nobody will listen. Instead of fixing lousy schools, we complain to our friends and then backfill by tutoring our children. It’s the best we can do. And when it comes to diet and exercise, we own two or three different-sized wardrobes. It’s impossible to stick to a diet.

Consider the following international example of coping. Not long ago the world celebrated the birthday of one of the smallest yet most successful organisms on the planet—a terrifying organism called HIV. A review of the proceedings of its birthday party in Toronto—the 16th International AIDS Conference—demonstrates our universal lack of confidence that we can actually change what people do. Of the speeches, classes, and activities that took place at that conference, over 90 percent dealt with how to cope with the effects of AIDS. Of course, helping AIDS sufferers is essential. We should spend time talking about how to reduce discrimination against sufferers and how to dramatically increase access to medicines. But it’s indicative of our collective sense of powerlessness that less than 10 percent of the speeches at the international AIDS conference even speculated on how to change the behavior that drives the disease in the first place. Here we have a disease that would never infect another human being if people simply thought and behaved differently, and yet the central forum for discussing the pandemic hardly touched on the topic of human behavior.

The administration must do more than just cope with the problems in our financial system. We need to use this opportunity to change things for the better, not just live to fight another day. We need to adapt and influence the outcomes.

According to Switzler, the key to adapting is finding the few vital behaviors that break the cycle of self-perpetuating problems. What are the vital behaviors that can make all the difference?

For starters, I’d suggest accountability. Accountability is more than responsibility when things go well, it is living with the consequences when things go badly. We’re not very good at allowing organizations to live with the consequences of bad decisions and by so doing we limit learning and behaviors never change.

ActionBrett Pinegar