Adapt Or Die

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Do you like the saying, "adapt or die"?

There are days when it is the soundtrack of my life and then there are days when I shake my head at what the connotation truly means. You see, it’s easy to be an armchair quarterback and say that the newspaper industry, the music industry, the book publishing industry, the retail industry, a traditional advertising agency… and almost every other industry should adapt or die. We live in interesting times (to steal a turn of phrase from the ancient Chinese curse) but it’s not so easy to make the pivot that Eric Ries writes about in his business book, The Lean Startup when you’re not a lean startup but a business that’s been around the block (and has the scars to prove it).

Instead of shaking your finger at those businesses turn the question on yourself.

Do you find it easy to adapt? Most of us do, but when it comes to the saying, "adapt or die," we’re not just talking about learning a new skill set or taking on more duties at the office. What we’re really saying is change everything and start fresh. Think about it. When we say to a newspaper, "adapt or die," what are we really saying…

  • Your business model is no longer viable.
  • Your current business model is becoming obsolete.
  • All of your investments (printing press, skilled labor, transportation, etc…) are now a liability.
  • Your staff are no longer in touch with the newer business models.
  • There are less and less consumers interested in what you are selling.
  • Your way of doing things converted to the digital frontier does not equate to the same revenue.
  • Your channels of innovation aren’t nimble enough to beat a fresh startup.
  • Your technology is already considered a legacy system.
  • Your employees (who may even be unionized) don’t make it easy to change.
  • Your shareholders will not stand for a revolution, they want continued and stable growth. Not risk.

What would you do?

It’s easy to say, "go digital. It’s all about the Web or mobile or Social," but these are companies that have both a legacy and a functioning business model. While that business model may be tarnished in this day and age, it is still profitable and keeps many people employed. Must that all be destroyed in order to truly thrive in our ever-changing economy? Again, put yourself in their shoes… would you be able to pull the trigger? To break the leaseholds, to fire everyone (or almost everyone), to completely disrupt the business model for a new one, to begin the long (and arduous) process of (basically) starting over, to recruit, hire and train a new team for the this new work, to educate both yourself and those who may be able to make the transition effectively… and on and on?

Adaptation, disruption and resting on your laurels.

Is there an example of a business that didn’t completely implode everything and start over and – by the same token – didn’t just sit back and let the evolution of business send them towards distinction? The answer is, of course, "yes." When you actually start digging down deep into how these companies have evolved and stayed relevant, you won’t see business models that look like anything from the playbooks of Apple, Google or Facebook. These aren’t radical organizations in a constant state of innovation and breakthrough technology. There are, literally, thousands of companies that have been around for over three decades that have managed to turn profits (maybe not year on year, but overall). Many of these companies we would consider to be both conservative and boring (I’m sure the shareholders are fine with being described as such), but things are about to get just a little more funky.

This isn’t the end.

The fallout of these disruptive times in business shows us that we’re still in the middle of it. The challenge for business is to not remain stuck in the past and not get too comfortable with how things are today. Pushing that further, you can’t only be focused on the future (because we all know how bad we are at predicting that). Is it time to take chances? Absolutely. Is it time to blow everything up and start over? Maybe for some, but not for many. Is it time to kill even the profitable business units because you know there’s no future in it? That’s a very tough call. Regardless of what we – as business owners – are capable of, there are bigger forces at play: technology, connectivity, mobility, analytics, data, creativity, commerce, publishing and more will continue to reshape and change how we do business. My guess is that the next five to ten years are going to make the past decade’s disruption seem minor in comparison.

Adapt or die? Maybe it’s more like tweak and iterate?


  1. Adapt or die doesn’t resonate well with me. Don’t like ultimatums. There is no doubt that companies need to evolve and get truly innovative to stay viable/profitable (I’m generalizing). I recall, maybe 5 or 6 years ago discussing with a marketing ‘expert’ that they felt magazines were a dying breed, yet I continue to see new magazines popping up like zits on a teenager. Why? They are evolving. They are becoming more “niche-y”, with better content and interesting ideas for cross-pollinated content to other media channels. Of course ‘digital’ continues to grow exponentially and will continue to amaze us with the opportunities it provides, but adapt or die? A little harsh. Evolve or become obsolete or irrelevant, maybe.

  2. It is this evolution… at the DNA level that is going to force more change – whether business wants it or not. There is a digitization of everything and we’re going to have to take a long, hard look at our world and make some tough decisions as technology keeps on zipping ahead.

  3. Business models that worked “yesterday” will become obsolete in the near future. The rapid pace of change, fueled by technology, will take no prisoners for those who don’t plan accordingly.
    Difficult to do? Yes, it’s not easy to abandon the familiar. It’s what worked for us in the past. Especially when the alternative might be failure.

  4. As a marketer you know your title of this post will make many uncomfortable Mitch. We do not like extremes nor change. The fear of the unknown. However, this post should be a wake up call for those that think they are in a bad dream/nightmare. Reality sucks sometimes. That doesn’t make life any easier but if life was always easy we would not truly enjoy life It’s the new blood and the younger people on your teams that can make these connections. This is what I love about these times. Don’t abandon your core business if it is still making you $! Always be testing and assessing! Thanks Mitch!

  5. Again Mitch – great article – as always. I’d like offer a different view on that phrase – adapt or die – which I love. I have always looked at it from an individual standpoint – even within an organization. I think that as long as people are willing to adapt, companies will follow suit. I would very much link the morphing or adaptability of any business back to the leaders of that business – if they are willing, as leaders, to see (or at least accept) the changes that are on the horizon – some of the problem is solved. Which, as you state, does benefit start-ups – mainly because they’re operating in the realm of today – not handcuffed by yesterday (in terms of business models, equipment, etc.).

  6. Maybe we are seeing things from a different perspective and saying the same thing, but here is my 2 cents.
    I don’t think we are in the “middle of it”, “it” is just a new rate of change, it’s not a transition, it is perpetual and accelerating. It’s time to stop thinking about re-invention of an economy and to start thinking about how all companies can become one with this new, accelerating rate of change. That is the challenge, the rate of change entered the exponential rate and the human factor(the capacity for the average Joe to comprehend the possibilities is diminishing over time) becomes the limitation across the board.
    It applies to all industries, all opportunities. I find that Medias companies are just a very easy demonstration, that touches the imagination. It’s happening everywhere, but you can’t expect the plastic industry to self-report on their challenges and drastic shifts. Textile, paper, cars, you name it, it’s NOT just digitization.
    This evolution is fundamentally bigger than the digital world and I feel like the biggest problem for many will be to adapt outside of digital. (Health, materials etc.)
    Example: What if suddenly a company make people walk at their desks for productivity reasons? How will smokers fare? When you smoke you lower your maximum rate of change.
    On adapt or die…well that’s a old concept. The viability of a business model is often not the reason you die. The presence of a more viable business model at a higher rate of change is why you die. That’s why “adaptation spurts” don’t work. That’s is why when you start changing you also need to change your rate of change, if not, you are losing 2 competitive battles. See Neanderthals vs Modern Human.
    Enough…Time to go print my coffee cup while reading my latest DNA results.

  7. As humans, we generally strive for some degree of stability and predictability. In some ways the best way to adapt in the past was to *avoid* risk in order to ensure survival. Tens of thousands of years of evolution have shaped our DNA and left our brains pre-wired for this type of environment. Yet the speed of change of the past few decades, and particularly the acceleration of this process brought on about by the emergence of the Internet and mobile communications has led to the situation where our brains haven’t caught up to this new reality. An old Chinese proverb proclaims that “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, something that our ancestors instinctively understood in an environment that was inherently defined by danger. As we’re about to enter the third decade of the web’s presence it is becoming abundantly clear that the internet and its related technologies are redefining every facet of our existence. Massive tectonic shifts are occurring simultaneously across just about everything – commerce, media, education, communication, health care, and so forth. This development is further compounded by the fact that more and more people are entering their adult lives with no first-hand experience of what life was like prior to the internet age. The arrival of this new generation will only accelerate the much needed institutional changes that likely will shock the previous generations. And this is the reality that every business will have to face – you either find ways to operate in an environment intrinsically defined by uncertainty and unpredictable competitive threats or at some point your organization will cease to exist. As such, it is critical for every enterprise to operate in ways that embrace the notion of constant change. Jeff Bezos is a perfect example of someone who instinctively grasps this by creating an environment where status quo is non-existent in the company’s cultural dictionary. Bezos religiously follows and instills in his organization the notion that in order to succeed in this environment your company must be the nail that sticks out which stands in sharp opposition to what our brains have been conditioned to.

  8. With innovation being as fast as it is today, most businesses are in this state of “forced evolution” where adapt or die applies by default. The only sad thing is that some of these big businesses that have been around for a long time and actually do good work may be too big to turn around quickly and implement new ideas and changes.
    It also seems like there is a touch of hubris in the leadership teams of those companies who are failing to keep up with the times. As much as I love the company being Canadian, RIM would be an example of that.
    Are we in the middle of it? I’m not sure. Innovation hasn’t really slowed down for decades. It just seems to get faster. An answer may lie in the acquisition and encouragement of these fast-moving, disruptive technologies and companies. Big companies should then build a house of brands, rather then a branded house approach.
    Thanks for a great post Mitch!

  9. Thanks Mitch, a compelling discussion for sure and on point. Change has been constant, perhaps the only real constant so the imperative is to embrace change not run from it. You note the many companies and services that have survived or flourished and all changed over time willingly or not. I agree the these years ahead may be the biggest adjustments ever but this is not adjust or die when it can be adjust and grow, or prosper or enjoy. Our attitudes toward things are about all we can actually control so leap the curves and endure.

  10. I agree – I think we’re saying the same thing, but with different twists. I do love the notion of changing the pace along with everything else. It feels to me that this is where many brands mis-step.

  11. The flight or fight response of those old brains just won’t evolve fast enough, will they? It’s so very frustrating 🙂 Bezos is an excellent example of this (even when he is under fire). With each passing year, I’m becoming more and more of an Amazon Evangelist…. and I’ve been a customer since they got started.

  12. “Forced evolution” is the macro problem here. It’s rare that businesses do well and make it out the other end when they are forced into something. It’s similar to what we’re still experiencing with brands that are engaging with Social Media not out of the opportunity but out of being arm-twisted into it.

  13. As someone who spent over 13 years in the print industry, I can say that adapting is not a choice. I watched an industry almost implode through their rigid stance on the status quo. There were a few places trying to adapt to lower demand, increased online activity, and environmental concerns. But the vast majority tried their best to do what always worked in the past. Unfortunately, that past doesn’t exist anymore. Times have changed, technologies have changed, customers have changed.
    A lack of foresight in any industry can be deadly. A lack of activity just as much. The question of when to blow it all up. Tough to say. I have seen so much panic in the industry that they are almost cannibalizing themselves. They are shutting down profitable shops in order to integrate and save on overhead. The problem is, most of the decisions are made from a position of panic or haste. They are not well thought out. Many of the once profitable print houses that were amalgamated are now running at a loss. These top down decisions are coming from scared people who fail to understand the direness of the situation. They are failing to do their due diligence before making big moves that are ill advised. They think they are adapting. In reality, they are panicing. Very rarely does a wise decision come from a place of panic.
    The biggest problem with dinosaur industries is that they often seek the answers internally. No one inside knows the answers. It’s a closed circle industry, as many are. That doesn’t bode well for the future. They truly are a case of adapt or die. I see some adapting, but many look like dinosaurs. And we all remember what happened to them.

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