Imagine you’re a spider. A scientist plucks you from your web, sticks you on a rocket, shoots you into space and lets you out at the International Space Station. She wants to see if you can spin a web in zero gravity.
What do you do?
If you were human, you’d probably lobby the astronauts to bring you back to Earth. It’s our instinct as humans to return to that which is familiar and comfortable.
But as a spider, you don’t know how to lobby astronauts. Rather, knowing that you’ll starve without a web, you decide to give spinning a try. Your first attempt doesn’t go well. It turns out that gravity is essential to the process. But you keep at it. After a few more attempts, you get the hang of it; you develop entirely new techniques to build your web.
This is, in fact, what happened when NASA scientists actually took spiders into space. The lessons for us Earth-bound entrepreneurs and business leaders are not to be missed. Canada’s economic progress hangs in the balance.
Like the spiders, we’ve all faced times when gravity is taken away. Few know this more than the people we spoke to in our latest book, Spiders in Space: Successfully Adapting to Unwanted Change. It’s 15 stories of Canadians who found ways to not only survive but to thrive when confronted with sudden and negative change.
From Canadian Paralympian Michelle Salt, who lost her leg in a motorbike accident, to the Canadian wine industry’s renaissance after the Free-Trade Agreement was expected to kill it, the stories are both inspiring and instructive.
There is no magic formula for turning life’s lemons into lemonade. It isn’t that easy. There is no simple pattern or set of steps to follow. There’s no Adapting for Dummies book.
Instead, what we did discover is a set of adaptive traits that emerge from those stories, and those traits made all the difference in helping these people thrive. These are particularly relevant for businesses, entrepreneurs and startups in Canada in 2017. The global economy is advancing with a cruel velocity, and it will smack any company unable to adapt out of its way.
Among the adaptive traits we identified is the ability to accept and harness tension – tension that is created by acting in ways that seem to be contradictory. For example, successful adapters have to be realistic in their goals but audacious enough to shoot for the stars. Think of American Idoljudges Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul. Simon dished out harsh yet pragmatic criticism, while Paula slathered on the follow-your-dreams encouragement. That kind of tension that can be harnessed and built upon.
Contestants needed to listen to both.
The applications for businesses and entrepreneurs are clear. Successfully harnessing tension means knowing your practical limits while at the same time pushing boundaries beyond your comfort level. It isn’t easy.
Another tension exists between leading fearlessly and humbly accepting guidance. Adapters often need to take the lead and charge forward, even if no one else is following. But that courage needs to be matched by a willingness to seek help from others, and that requires a great deal of humility. Adapters have to embrace the tension created by acting like a lone wolf one minute and a member of the pack the next.
Successful adapters, like successful entrepreneurs, pour themselves into what they are trying to achieve. They work long hours. They try things, fail and try again. They look at things from different angles and seek to reshape the way things are. Adapters and entrepreneurs want more than to just muddle through. They want to thrive.
This makes adapting to unwanted change sound like a daunting task, and it is. Adapting is the hard path, not the easy one. The good news is that the stories we share in our book will inspire a new generation of business leaders and entrepreneurs, the kind of leaders Canada needs in the 21st century.
Embrace the tension. The effort is worth it.
Todd Hirsch is the Calgary-based chief economist of ATB Financial and author of The Boiling Frog Dilemma: Saving Canada from Economic Decline. Rob Roach is ATB Financial’s director of insight.