Business Insight

Seven principles to improvise, adapt, overcome in business

In 1989, 17-year-old Michael Chang's perseverance in the French Open ensured he etched his name into the history of Roland-Garros.
Barry Shannon

CLINT Eastwood once starred in a 1986 film about a group of US Marines in training, called Heartbreak Ridge.

While it perhaps will never be remembered as one of the more memorable entries in his résumé, there was a point in the movie where Clint provided the following words of instruction to his team: ‘Improvise, adapt, overcome’.

The phrase popped back into my head this week when I was reading an old article about the US tennis player Michael Chang.

In 1989 Chang, then 17, became the youngest ever winner of a men’s grand slam single title. The French Open.

Yet the final is probably not what most people remember from that amazing run. The match most people remember was in the fourth round, against Ivan Lendl.

While Chang at the time was regarded as something of a prodigy, there is no doubt that Lendl was a titan of the game back then and regarded as clear favourite. Lendl duly won the first two sets handy enough.

He lost the third however, through a combination of unforced errors and good play from Chang, and in the fourth set things really started to become interesting.

Lendl became more and more rattled, blaming the umpire, the condition of the court and failing to capitalise on break points.

And then, the drama. Toward the end of the fourth set Chang began to cramp. Badly.

Dehydration was affecting him, his calves were tightening, and by his own admission he was struggling; he could barely move, worrying if he could even finish the match.

Rather than concede however, he persevered. Almost as if he could hear Clint yelling in his ear. Chang began to improvise and adapt, playing the match on his terms.

He slowed the tempo right down, using looping ‘moon shots’ to take pace off the ball and frustrate Lendl. He maximised his water and rest breaks.

At one stage he even moved several feet into the court, right up to the service box, to receive Lendl’s serve.

The clincher, the ‘last stone that felled Goliath’ (as Todd Martin, the tennis pro put it), was Chang’s decision to do the unthinkable for professional tennis; he began to serve underhand.

Lendl could not cope in that moment. He was unable to adapt or overcome.

Game, set and match.

How often, in business, do we come up against unexpected obstacles.

How often do we get a curveball thrown at us, something that initially throws us entirely off our game? Are we able to improvise, adapt and overcome like Michael Chang?

For some companies, the impact can be massive and that inability to cope can cost thousands, millions or billions. Worse, it could impact the survival of the business itself.

The question I all hear you ask though is: how can we truly plan for something unexpected?

The very word suggest we do not know it’s coming. And to an extent, it is difficult.

You may never be able to guess the exact, precise impact of the unknown, but you can certainly put your business in a better position to manage it and cope, by using the following seven principles:

1. Resilience. Create a culture of resilience among your staff. Help them develop the ability to bounce back from problems and react quickly, rather than crumble.

2. Have robust processes in place. If you have a disaster plan formulated for significant events for example, then at least you will have a basic roadmap. You know what needs to be considered and where to start.

3. Be creative. Problems require solutions. Solutions come from being creative. Encourage creativity wherever possible in your teams.

4. Challenge. All decisions and plans can benefit from appropriate, respectful challenge; from others and from yourself. Ensure that you and your staff feel comfortable asking questions and ‘what ifs’.

5. Review. Everything significant thing that you do: review. After implementation and on a regular basis thereafter. External and internal environments change and will impact on your business accordingly. Make sure you keep on top of that.

6. Critical thinking. When something does go wrong having the ability to analyse and draw conclusions from the facts of what has happened is essential. Ensure key people are well versed in this art.

7. Be comfortable with change. Few businesses survive by standing still. Make sure your people understand the importance of change when necessary and how to navigate through effectively. That way if change is forced unexpectedly upon the business, your teams can react.

As Clint also said (in the movie Absolute Power) ‘tomorrow is promised to no-one’. We need to be ready for anything that comes our way.

Barry Shannon FCIPD is a specialist in HR matters

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Business Insight