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Agile Adaptation

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

In Finland, 1865, a small company was born as a single paper mill operation. Over the years, this company responded to the needs of the market and grew as a result, successfully capitalising on a variety of industrial sectors including the manufacture of rubber boots, tires, and cables. But it was thanks to a shift in primary focus at the beginning of the 1990s, towards telecommunications, which catapulted this company to global success. This company was Nokia, and this was the beginning of their domination in the mobile phone market.

In 1998, Nokia had become the best-selling mobile phone brand in the world. In the fourth quarter of 2007, they had acquired a 50.9% global market share in the mobile phone industry. Their agility and ability to quickly adapt to the market demands around them had paved the way to remarkable international success. This success, though, was to be short-lived; in 2013 after a sharp decline and nearing bankruptcy, it was announced that Microsoft had bought Nokia's mobile device business.

Nokia’s decline was due to various reasons; prolonging the use of archaic hardware, a reluctance to change to modern operating systems, and simply being too slow to react to the first wave of the smartphone takeover. And by the time Nokia developed their first smartphone, it was all too late – Apple and Android were already lightyears in front, duelling to dominate the new market. Nokia, in all their years of responsive innovation, had failed to keep up.

At present, many businesses are arguably facing a much more difficult challenge at the hands of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the course of a year, it has caused immeasurable damage to some industries, seeing big and small organisations collapse as a result. That said, it’s not all negative - some have managed to keep afloat. So why are some businesses failing, while others are surviving?

There appear to be three ways in which organisations are surviving right now. The first is a reliance on an organisation’s capital reserves, where there has been preparation in place for any unforeseen events occurring (such as this pandemic). The second is with emergency funding, as is provided, for example, by one’s government with the purpose of helping businesses stay alive in these difficult circumstances. The third way is agile adaptation.

While the first two solutions may provide solace in the short-term, neither are built to last. Agile adaptation is the only realistic solution to survive long-term; it is to be curious and responsive to the demands of the market, much like the early days of Nokia. It is to be aware of the goings-on around, and to be able to adapt and innovate as fast as possible to get and to stay ahead. We’re engulfed in a particularly volatile and complex world at present, and classic innovation, as we know it, won’t cut it alone. It now needs agile adaptation. Innovation is as important as it ever was – if not more so - but organisations need to simultaneously demonstrate agile adaptation, or they die.

As such, agile adaptation is the vessel through which modern innovation can prosper. It requires speed and efficiency. It requires organisations to embrace instability and uncertainty which, as human beings, we naturally try to avoid. Nokia had always been innovative; but upon achieving market domination, they overlooked potential outside threats and revelled in glory. They found complacency in stability, and in the words of American economist Hyman Minksy, “All stable economies sow the seeds of their own destruction”. Crucially, in the very same year that Nokia had acquired a 50.9% global market share, Apple released the iPhone which would spell the end of Nokia's reign. As such, Nokia may have been exercising innovation but they were not exercising agile adaptation.

Many organisations are focusing solely on surviving the pandemic rather than also thinking about their battle beyond it. But as we come out the other side, agile adaptation will still be as instrumental as it was during the pandemic for businesses to succeed. Demands will remain high, market competition will continue, technology will keep advancing at a dizzying rate, and the threat of other crises will be taken much more seriously. As was the case for Nokia, an instance of complacency can quickly destroy all the good of innovation. Agile adaptation, then, is not only a crucial skill in guiding organisations towards success now, but in the many years to come.


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