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Change the game
on 24 June 2012
'All failure is a failure to adapt', says McKeown in his introduction to this book.
In the living world, if a species doesn't adapt to its environment, it dies and its precise genetic make-up leaves the gene pool. Organisms that evolve through chance mutation or through the evolutionary selection of existing advantageous adaptations manage to survive to reproduce another day. But, as McKeown points out, human beings have managed to add another layer of adaptation to the brute business of genetic inheritance. McKeown characterises these mechanisms as culture, science and technology: we learn and pass on tricks that help to us adapt to changing circumstances, regardless of our genetic make-up.
McKeown's introduction to 'Rule 1' (Play your own Game) says it all: 'If you are getting whipped playing by the existing rules, get used to losing or change the game. If you can't win by standing and fighting then run and hide. If you can't win by being big, be small. If you can't win by being small, be big. The first rule of winning is that there is no one way to win.' Organisations - especially corporations - need to remind themselves of this vital need for constant adaptation, argues McKeown. As another of his proposed rules for survival nicely puts it, `Stability is a dangerous illusion.' Or, as he quotes IBM CEO Virginia Rometty as saying: 'You may be only one mistake away from irrelevance.'
The problem is that most organisations are inherently conservative; they don't just resist change, they actively fight against it. McKeown offers three fundamental steps for survival that form the structure of this book: recognise the need for adaptation; understand what adaption is required; do what is necessary to adapt. Adaptability is stuffed full of examples, some familiar, some new, of organisations which failed to notice that they needed to adapt until it was too late, or nearly too late: the American car industry in the face of nimbler Japanese competition; the banking group UBS in the face of what had become an institutionalised pattern of irresponsible trading that led, apparently suddenly, to the loss of $2.5 billion by one employee. To quote another of McKeown's rules: 'Stupid survives until smart succeeds.' I also liked his comment - in the context of the US car industry thinking of a dozen reasons why Japanese car manufacturers might be selling more cars other than the simple fact that they were making cars that people preferred to buy: 'enthusiastic ignorance is the most dangerous behaviour to enlightened adaptation.'
There are four possible outcomes of adaptation, or failure to adapt, according to McKeown: collapse; survival; thriving; transcendence. Sometimes, he argues, we survive but continue in a pretty miserable existence. Sometimes we get it right and thrive. Sometimes, which is even better, we 'transcend' the situation: we escape the constraints of the existing situation and rise above it; we move from one way of living or working to a better way. This is what corporations should seek to achieve.
McKeown's aim is laudable: 'My interest is in understanding more about how social groups can move beyond the existing rules to find games that allow more people to win more often.' This is a thoroughly enjoyable book that expands intelligently on its premise, and which ranges impressively across all the fields of human endeavour in the search for illustrations of the essential need for adaptation: from the war in Iraq to making Levis with less water; from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to game theory; from the National Football League to Easter Islanders. McKeown may in fact, have been a little too generous in the illustrations of his central argument - at times the sheer profusion of examples makes the head spin a little - but this is a well-developed book with a consistent and well-argued theme. I agree wholeheartedly with McKeown that adaptability is one of the key blind spots of modern business: when organisations are successful, they tend to fight tooth and nail to maintain the circumstances that have made them successful. But circumstances change.