In their July, 2011 Harvard Business Review Article, “Adaptability: The New Competitive Advantage” (great article, worth the $, IMO), Martin Reeves and Mike Deimler make a solid case for our need to cultivate critical soft organizational skills to survive and prosper in today’s turbulent business environment.

Reeves and Deimler suggest that leaders and firms shift their focus away from the traditional approach to strategy (creating an enduring and relatively static competitive advantage through price, positioning or differentiation), and instead focus on cultivating four critical capabilities:

  1. The ability to read and act on signals of change,
  2. The ability to experiment rapidly and frequently-not only with products and services but also with business models, processes and strategies.
  3. The ability to manage complex and interconnected systems of multiple stakeholders.
  4. The ability to motivate employees and partners.

On a grand scale, these four read like the playbooks in use at Apple, Google, Amazon and other Masters of the Universe who seemingly morph their businesses and business models at a torrid pace, capturing more of our attention and more of our consumption along the way.
On a more local and relevant for the rest of us scale, these organizational capabilities are nothing more or less than the outcomes of effective leadership coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit.

Most start-ups rely on their skills in all four of those areas, almost by instinct. Their business agility is keen due to resource limitations and because they are driven to experiment with their ideas and approaches until something sticks and they move beyond survival towards success.

Local Lessons in Winning Approaches to Business Strategy

During the past few years, I’ve marveled at the start-ups and small to mid-sized businesses in my community who didn’t need an army of consultants or MBAs to teach them the very relevant and important lessons that Reeves and Deimler share in their article.

They live in a world where agility is survival. They understand, experiment, learn and iterate. They know to seize upon what works and build it out while the building is good. And they get that they need to continuously be looking for new approaches to innovate based on failures and successes and the inevitable copycats and disruptions.

  • There’s the wildly successful local Coffee Roaster, where the founders tackled the daunting task of starting a coffee business in the era of Starbucks, and have succeeded. They continue to morph their business model and strategy…and they experiment like fiends with new approaches to serving their clientele and shifting their business through licensing and distribution.
  • And then there’s the Hair Salon that was the dream of a group of young professional women that has become the go-to place in the county. From start-up to juggernaut. Now, growth is the problem and appointments are hard to come by. I continue to get all 311 remaining hairs on my head cut at a ridiculous price premium here because the culture rocks, the senior partner is the smartest business person I know to not have a business degree, and I leave there every time feeling great and with three new ideas to write about based on their management, hiring, marketing and customer-service approaches.
  • Someone I admire tremendously runs a growing manufacturing concern focused on an offering into the display side of the retail industry. They make products you wouldn’t think twice about, yet to tour the factory is to be amazed at the thought and investment in innovation. To meet and work with the people is to know that there’s something special in the leadership and the culture.

3 Critical Common Characteristics of these Main Street Successes

  1. Leadership that gets it. They are led by individuals who view the top and bottom lines as outcomes of doing the right things for and with their employees and customers.
  2. Change is embraced. They intuitively get the guidance offered by Reeves and Deimler on building strength and they live it every day. Instead of fearing change, they find ways to leverage and promote it.
  3. They are big thinkers looking to harness big ideas in small ways. They are born strategists who think beyond the here and now and take their cues not only from their customers but from observing and anticipating what some of these macro-changes in our world mean for their businesses.

The Bottom-Line for Now

The lessons from the big firms in the news are visible and exciting. However, don’t discount the lessons in management innovation that are being taught on and around Main Street. The sharpest small business owners that I know have long understood the secrets that the rest of us in the corporate world are now discovering.

This blog originally appeared at

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