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Adaptability Isn't Optional:

Looking Back on 30 Years in Business

by Katie Wallace

"When the world is predictable, you need smart people. When the world is unpredictable you need adaptable people."

-Henry Mintzberg 

We’ve all experienced unexpected circumstances in business that call for us to adapt. Changing markets, advancing technology, lack of access to resources – just a few examples of opportunities where we are called to change (or adapt) as our environment changes.

On some level, we know what we must do to adapt at critical times. Sometimes we’re conscious of the changes needed, sometimes we’re not. Sometimes we adapt, and sometimes we don’t. It’s easy to put off thinking about it, especially when it requires some strategic muscle to resolve. Or we create excuses – we don’t have the available resources, or it’s too uncomfortable or overwhelming to even consider. We create distractions. And we don’t adapt.

But universal law teaches us that languishing in the status quo eventually brings more of the discomfort you’re trying to avoid, and often worse. I’ll be 60 next year and have learned that lesson the hard way. I’ve also witnessed it with clients more times than I can count. Which is why I’ve developed such a passion around this idea of adaptability. I guide clients to approaching their decision making through the lens of adaptability with a mind open to the idea that change – however difficult it may be – can open them up to new growth and success.

A career in adaptability

Very rarely is business predictable, especially in the beginning. Thriving as a business owner for 30 years has required constant adaptability. The same goes for striving for constant relevancy and making sure the business continues to grow. And me with it.

Adaptability is just a way of being when starting a business – there’s only one way to move and that’s forward. You just do what you have to do to make the business work, pay the rent and put food on the table.

My business launched July 1, 1990 and the novelty of being completely on my own gave me a new kind of freedom. But during that first year, I experienced a big shift in the way I did business. Suddenly my world went from producing all my work using rapidiographs, ink and X-Acto blades to sitting in front of a new Apple computer, navigating Pagemaker with a mouse. My love of ink on paper was diminished daily with growing frustrations of learning this new tool. I was eager to adapt, however. My motivation was the promise of being able to design on the fly and set my own type. Talk about freedom.

Did I adapt? Absolutely. 

No longer did I toil over tissue paper with my thin markers to draw headlines for comps to show clients, something that I actually found pleasantly meditative. But specifying type to send out to a typesetter for galleys? Not so much. Not all galleys worked perfectly in my layouts. In fact it was rare not to have to make some kind of change. Sometimes it was a typo, or the rag-right looked weird – it was always something… and the ability to manipulate my own type in a layout, in real time on my tiny new 8” screen, was more than motivation for me to learn to love that new $10,000 investment–it was a game-changer–and I moved with determination and speed.

I knew some designers and illustrators who were not so quick to jump on the Mac bandwagon, and the longer they waited, the harder it became for them to stay up-to-date with the ever-changing technology – and continue to thrive in the advertising industry. Some adapted by completely shifting the direction of their professional lives. One became a truck driver. Some took early retirement.

Breaking free of the status quo

When change is in the air, it’s difficult to know exactly what to do. COVID may be an extreme example, but certainly a timely one. Over the past nine months, many clients adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Now that the initial shock of the pandemic is past, the fear of moving forward seems to be subsiding at least. But what I find very interesting is there’s virtually no shift to their approach and their messaging hasn’t changed. Maintaining the status quo is like not even acknowledging that we are in the middle of a pandemic that’s completely changing the way we live and work. We’ve turned kitchens into offices and classrooms, we’re watching sports with no fans. We’re isolated in our homes, staying out of indoor restaurants, wondering about Christmas and when we can see family, afraid to shop locally for anything other than groceries and duct tape, and put on a mask every time we leave the house.

In light of all these shifts – not to mention the intense (and invisible) health risks within our communities – marketing messages need to change or shift enough to meet this changing environment. Think about it. How is your business maximizing its online presence? How do you demonstrate your ability to meet the changing needs of your customers? How do you reinforce ways your business is responding to the changes we are all experiencing? Responding to the shifts and changes in the market is a clear way for you to demonstrate your relevancy. How are you answering the call? Whether it’s by reinforcing your market position or by providing a service that makes life easier for your customers, the time to adapt is now.

Seeing the forest through the trees

But change can be hard. For Wallace360, these recent changes have particular relevancy for the way we do business and the way we approach client work. By studying every part of our clients’ business, with a 360-degree view, we can see with an outside perspective, what’s more difficult for anyone on the inside to see. It takes vision to see where the real opportunities are hidden and to develop strategic plans that map out the route to get you where you need to go with your business. We provide new ways for you to think about your most worrisome challenges (or maximize your greatest strengths) and work with you to make your business better, more fulfilling and successful. And adaptability is a key principle to the equation for success.

Years ago I remember hiring outside consultants to help us be better at various aspects of the business – better systems, processes, whatever­ it happened to be. And of course, once the consultants were gone and we each had our role to play, it was up to us to step up and do our part to get with the new program. With all the best intentions, we (I) tried whole-heartedly to embrace the suggested changes, with much anticipation of our resulting reward – better processes, quality control and efficiencies to better serve our clients. But in no time, just like a pulled rubber band snapping back into its rightful place, I’d feel myself moving back to what I knew, what I had always done and where I was the most comfortable. I understood the changes in theory, but something was missing when it came time to put a new system into practice.

“People don’t resist change per se, people resist loss,” says Ronald A. Heifetz in Leadership on the Line. It’s not only changing the business processes that’s the challenge. It’s just as much about the people being asked to make the change, if not even more so. Asking them to step out of their comfort zone and face the loss of their tried and true way of working is only the first step. And then what’s the reward for their hard work?

The magic of alignment

But in the challenge, comes the reward. During a recent cultural initiative with a client, we witnessed the magic of creating alignment among all levels of an organization. Our process started by asking questions (we want to hear what you think), then listening (we are interested in what you value), and then engaging with everyone from the board to the front-line workers. It seems so basic, but creating alignment around shared values creates dialog, inclusion and inspiration to be a better company.

Efforts like these change your (working) environment, and adaptability is absolutely essential in order to fully realize your desired result whether it’s updating an internal process or repositioning your company in the marketplace. Quite simply, the idea of adaptability should to be at the center of the discussion, or better yet needs to be the thing that leads the discussion before any shift can successfully take place within your business.

And this is what we do at Wallace360.

We believe that adaptability is a central idea to just about everything we do. Because when businesses contact us, they are looking for things to change – more sales, more effective marketing programs, better profitability, higher employee retention – and I believe starting with adaptability is a way to drive change with a more open, productive and accommodating spirit. And while I’m not suggesting barriers will magically dissolve without some work, you’ve got to start somewhere, and I believe starting under an umbrella of adaptability fosters open minds and brings our best foot forward.

Change or die. The time to adapt is now.

Katie Wallace
Katie is a long-standing force in the marketing industry and the guiding creative voice behind Wallace360. Formally known as The Wallace Agency, she founded Wallace360 in 1990 and over the past 30 years has helped countless non-profit organizations and companies alike ignite and expand the scope of their marketing by bringing the passion and vision behind their brands to life.

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