“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, not the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

— Charles Darwin

“In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

— Charles Darwin

“If you live among wolves you have to act like a wolf.”

— Nikita Khrushchev

“Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception.”

— Carl Sagan

“In the animal kingdom, one of the keys to survival is to outwit your enemies. And when you’re surrounded by carnivores, one of the best strategies is to fade into the background and disappear.”

— Neil deGrasse Tyson

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

— W. Edwards Deming

A lot of bad stuff seems to be happening right now. Or at least a lot more bad stuff than happened in the good-old-normal. What’s going on here?

Is this mostly just a major speed bump in our long happy road to the future? Or something more? Maybe even much more?

It seems pretty important to have at least some idea of what is actually going on out there in reality. Survival is important. Success also.

I will try to look at this question from the viewpoint of a leader who needs to respond today in practical ways to whatever may be happening – ways that assure the long-term survival and success of an organization or business.

The situation here does not appear avoidable. It must be dealt with. The only question – one that I am hearing very often these days – is an extremely tough one: What should we do? What are our options, if any?

A note before getting started: Not acting is rarely a real option. Not acting is in fact acting: doing nothing other than mostly business-as-usual is an executive action decision. Maybe okay, maybe not: Darwin will decide for you.

Uh-Oh … the herd is on the move

Herd behaviors are often not rational but they are very hard to resist when you are among the herd. Getting out of the herd can be especially difficult. Even if you do escape, what are your available options outside of the herd?

Is there any way to run more-or-less with the herd, or at least appear to do so, while following unobtrusively your own survive-and-succeed game plan?

This requires a very special kind of adaptation.

Herd behaviors, regardless of rationality, are real. They are the reality that we must deal with in order to survive and succeed. It is very hard, and often impossible, to ignore or push back against a significant reality. Darwin always wins. 

The herd is definitely on the move again – are you among them?

Is Darwin still around?

Darwin observed that our world is always changing. Sometimes for the better but very often for the worse. The latter is where organisms get survival-tested. Failure here can mean extinction. He found that it is not the strongest or fittest who survive but instead the most adaptable.

You can’t do much about most major adverse changes but you can do a lot about your ability to respond effectively – adapt  successfully – to whatever happens.

Life has some quiet times, and even some good times when Darwin is taking a coffee break. He always seems to return, unfortunately, which too few anticipate and prepare for while he is busy elsewhere or looking the other way.

You can’t fully adapt to a change before it happens. What you can do however is figure out where your greatest weaknesses lie and then get busy strengthening each point of major weakness. Changes may vary all over the place in timing, nature, and magnitude but they can only impact your business or organization in very few places and ways. When you have no real idea about what is coming next, you can surely address points of weaknesses or vulnerability and even build in a few ways to gain from some types of adversity.

Darwin truly is at work again it seems

The rules for survive-plus-succeed actions have changed. Forever, or maybe even longer. What worked before won’t work today, nor going forward.

Human society is a collection of Darwinian entities. It does what all such entities do over time as they evolve. Some members survive and thrive. Others manage barely to survive but only with great struggle and with a result that is not success. Yet others don’t even manage to survive, and they disappear into the mass of historical debris.

That’s just how the world works. How reality works.

As Darwin concluded, you can’t change the way the work works. You can only seek to adapt successfully to whatever your world happens to be doing at each moment.

This does not mean accepting whatever the world and the herd is doing as the right path forward for you. It means being clever enough to adapt in your own way. The keyword here is “adapt”. But in your own way as much as possible.

Okay, so just how might one go about this specialized adaptation?

Adapting – successfully – is the real challenge

Exactly how does one – a business or organization – go about this “adapting successfully, post-survival” challenge? We can of course just let things happen and see where we end up. Unfortunately, this seems to be a very popular approach to dealing with current happenings. Business-as-usual plus going along with the herd – as much as possible. Change only as forced to by the herd. Struggle with the consequences as best you can.

Micro- or mini-adaptations may not work well enough to ensure your survival and ultimate success. Adaptation here has to be done purposefully and cleverly.

Adaptation is not acceptance, or at least not the main game. You do have to accept whatever Darwin is up to at present as your operating reality. Since you can’t change this reality much, you have to concentrate on developing and executing your own adaptive responses without drawing too much attention.

Staying below the radar

Easy to say. Hard to do. Radar beams today are pointing almost everywhere. They are going to light you up inevitably. So what to do?

How about making your business or organization into a kind of stealth entity. Deflect or absorb and redirect digressive signals – aka herd mandates and herd responses – as much as possible.

The challenges are piling up. Fast. Let’s start with a really tough one that seems to be coming, and perhaps is already upon us (as of late-August 2021). Is it possible to go stealth somehow in this situation?

Parallel structures might be one solution

The concept of parallel structures seems to originate in the writings of Czech authors Vaclav Benda and (former Czech president) Vaclav Havel. My understanding of this idea is that existence within a difficult and rigid environment may be best achieved not by direct confrontation but instead by creating parallel structures that can function productively alongside the main one.

This seems definitely like a kind of stealth approach – not hidden but simply operated separately, quietly, and non-confrontationally. Below the radar.

Let’s think about how this might work in a real, major, current context:

The very difficult vaccine-vaxx mandate challenge

Vaccine-vaxx mandates of some sort seem right now to be inevitable. This despite growing serious concerns about safety and long-term health effects. There is tremendous pressure to get everyone fully on board regardless.

Note: I am using the currently-popular “vaxx” term instead of “vaccine” to reflect the fact that the current injections are technically not vaccines by accepted medical standards. But injections, jabs, and shots seem a bit too pejorative.

What are your options, if any, for going into some sort of stealth mode?

Giving all employees the option to vaxx or remain unvaxxed seems to be a sensible first step – but only if this is indeed permitted. The associated problem here is that vaccinated people seem to be highly fearful of the unvaxxed. This means that the two groups probably need to be physically separated somehow.

Such separation used to be hard to do but no longer in many cases. Technology is making many of us more location-independent each day. This can take the form of remote work or setting up separate physical locations for the smaller group (typically the unvaxxed).

But suppose you can’t get away from a full-vaccine-for-all mandate. Employees who refuse to be vaccinated (or tested regularly) would lose their jobs. What if some of these people are among your most valuable employees? Maybe even nearly impossible to fully replace because of specialized knowledge or long experience.

The only solution that I can see here is to create small parallel business structures to accommodate them. This might take the form of small independent units that would work under contract with your main operations. Unvaxxed people would become contractors in effect and could, at least in principle, make their own rules about dealing with mandates of various kinds.

Will it work? Certainly for a while at least, and perhaps even long term as public and regulatory attention shifts. Which it will.

Employee separation of this nature therefore seems like a good parallel structure (stealth) move where it turns out to be practical.

What about public retail locations?

This is a tough one, as you know. You can’t generally separate customers into vaxxed and non-vaxxed physically. You might be able to achieve separation by means of some degree of facility division but this probably won’t be practical in most situations. Online shopping, pickup and delivery services may well take care of the problem for many.

Retail customers are likely to self-separate by avoiding vaxx-mandatory locations. Loss of such customers may make a serious dent in profits for these locations but the impact may be manageable. Certainly preferable to being shut down completely as in 2020. Again, some sort of parallel structures might be possible.

Waiting for long-term vaxx effects to become known seems like a wise move for many people – employees and customers both. If the long-term effects appear to be acceptable for many people, vaxx acceptance will almost certainly increase.

The stealth move in this situation is not really stealth but simply acceptance that you will lose some customers who cannot or will not be accommodated by online shopping, pickup, and delivery options.

The worst case nightmare of serious vaxx adverse effects being realized

This is truly almost too awful to think about. Vaxx impacts may well appear over an extended time period so that the already-vaxxed would become ill or disabled increasingly. While we can hope for medical mitigation of the most serious effects, this worst-case has the potential to greatly reduce your workforce.

Such a situation is almost beyond imagination. Unless you are among the fortunate few however, you may well be forced to deal with it. Refusing is likely to default the outcome to Darwin and his harsh culling processes.

Site redundancy may be another option

In yet another worst-case scenario, voluntary vaxx-mandates may move to enforced status in some regions. Such an extreme presently seems unlikely since it will almost certainly result in large migrations to vaxx-voluntary regions, like Florida (so far, at least). Businesses and organizations that adopt vaxx-mandatory rules are then likely to lose some and perhaps many workers to these regions.

This cause of worker loss seems a bit more hopeful than illness-driven losses. It also suggests a possible stealth move in terms of setting up some degree of site redundancy between vaxx-mandatory and vaxx-voluntary regions.

You can’t do this kind of site redundancy without substantial preparation in most cases. You need to start now.

Freelancing may be an answer for many

The most recent post addressed the explosion of freelancing, self-employed workers in the U.S. Such workers have reached 36% of the workforce and this percentage is growing rapidly.

Vaxx-reluctant workers may well be able to survive and succeed by shifting to freelance arrangements until the vaxx situation dust settles.

What are the odds of any of this actually happening?

What were the odds in 2019 of COVID happening? Zero or less. What are the odds of something just as nasty happening in the near future? Around 100%. We just don’t know what exactly is coming but the signs right now are ominous.

As I have argued several times in these posts, the smart thing to do is to make your business or organization as bulletproof as possible while you have a chance. Hard to do when the world goes max-nasty again. Agile. Adaptable. Resilient.

Time for automation and AI

As much as people are essential, and maybe even nice to have around at times, they have increasingly become problems. They catch COVID along with many other inconvenient things. They tend to behave in herds, as Charles Mackay and Gustave Le Bon observed.

Employee loss due to vaxx-related illnesses or vaxx-reluctance firings are almost certain to generate an increased use of automation and artificial intelligence as long-term solutions. Again, you need as much lead-time as possible to implement these so the time to start is today. At the latest.

Creativity and innovation are more important than ever

Changes can produce big problems but also big opportunities. Creative and innovative folks are not especially common. You can’t generally find them on short notice. They have to be recruited and integrated into your business well ahead of change-driven needs and opportunities appearing.

It seems almost heartless to view the current struggle and turmoil as opportunities but this does not change the fact that any change creates opportunities for those who are looking. Herds don’t do this.

Can it get much worse?

Of course. Just ask the dinosaurs. No dinosaurs around right now? Then just be prepared as best you can for whatever next-nasty appears. The underlying goal is resilience, as a recent post argued.

Strauss and Howe (see Related Reading below) have argued that what we are experiencing today is just a cyclical crisis of society’s old age. Expected and inevitable.

Again, this cyclical hypothesis, which is supported by substantial evidence, may well be real and either here or coming up fast. The view that we are in a cyclical crisis phase does not matter as much as how we prepare to deal with it.

Bottom line:

Life in the old normal was stable, predictable, manageable. Life in the new normal is just constant major change that creates Darwinian survival challenges. Size and strength, being the fittest, will not make you a winner – that is, survival-plus-success. As Darwin wisely observed back around 1870, it is the most adaptable who ultimately come out on top. We have looked at a few ways to go about this adaptability thing in an increasingly rigid operating environment.

Related Reading

Yahoo!News reports a recent poll showing that: “18 percent of Americans say they would quit their job over vaccine, mask mandates”. Testing is also among the reasons given here. The San Francisco Deputy Sheriffs’ Association recently noted on its Facebook page that about 160 of 600 sheriff employees are rejecting the vaccine due to religious or other beliefs, and would rather wear masks or test weekly. If real, this means facing serious shortages of workers in many businesses and organizations. Soon.

CNBC reported in late July 2021 that “Texas Gov. Abbott threatens fines again against local officials and businesses that enforce mask mandates, vaccine requirements”:

“Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Thursday, reiterating his opposition to mask mandates, Covid-related business restrictions and vaccination requirements and issuing fines of up to $1,000 on those who fail to comply.”

“The governor also called on state hospitals to deliver daily reports on their capacity to the Texas Department of State Health Services to send to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

“’The new Executive Order emphasizes that the path forward relies on personal responsibility rather than government mandates, ‘ Abbott said in a statement. Abbott’s order reiterates and extends previous orders he’s issued penalizing local officials and others for enforcing various Covid safety protocols.”

“The measure bans government agencies from requiring individuals to get vaccinated or provide proof of vaccination. Public and private entities receiving state funding are prohibited from denying entry to individuals based on their vaccination status, but all nursing homes and living facilities can still require inoculations for their residents.”

Strauss and Howe’s Fourth Turning – Crisis

You have probably run across William Strauss and Neil Howe’s generational theories of cycles in societies, especially the U.S., that last roughly 80-90 years. Each generational cycle consists of four “turnings”, or phases: the first is a High that follows a previous Crisis; the second is an Awakening; third is an Unraveling; fourth is yet another Crisis. Each of these lasts about 20 years or so, corresponding to the human life phases of childhood, young adulthood, midlife, and old age.

Crisis as you might guess is an era of destruction, often involving war or revolution. Conveniently, American history – marked by the Revolutionary War in 1775, the Civil War in 1860, and WW II in 1940 – certainly qualify for Crisis status phases on a roughly 80-year cycle. Disturbingly, this makes 2020 the timing for our next Fourth Turning Crisis. Let’s see – what happened in 2020? Oh yes, COVID.

COVID might well be the driver for our next Crisis era. Timing is certainly right on. Not comforting, though, to think about the next 20 years as being a period of destruction. Here we are only about two years into Crisis and we already have a major mess on our hands. Globally, not just the U.S. Perhaps U.S. hegemony managed to spread the crisis around?

Anyhow, crises are marked by major secular upheaval, when society is deeply involved with, or forced into, reorganizing its world of institutions and public behavior. Upheaval seems to be the operative term here.

This seems to mean that our present nastiness is simply rolling out according to generational cycle timing as predicted by Strauss and Howe. Perhaps nothing more than society’s latest old age struggles is happening. Maybe.

Does it truly matter what the upheaval cause is? We almost certainly cannot fix it or change its course appreciably. It is our current Darwinian reality and the best we can do is to adapt successfully to whatever comes along.