Shift Ahead: A book review by Bob Morris

Shift Ahead: How the Best Companies Stay Relevant in a Fast-Changing World
Allen Adamson and Joel Steckel
AMACOM (November 2017)

What it takes for individuals as well as for organizations to stay relevant in a fast-changing society

Here’s an unorthodox suggestion: Read Allen Adamson and Joel Steckel’s “Concluding Remarks” (Pages 257-261) before you read anything else. Paradoxically, in my opinion, the best introduction to this book is provided in the last few pages.

What we have here is a lively and rigorous as well as eloquent response to this question: “What does it take for individuals as well as for organizations to stay relevant in a fast-changing society?” Consider this passage in Chapter 1. Adamson and Steckel recall a conversation with Tom Friedman who observes:

“When change is happening at five miles per hour, if you get off track it’s not that big a deal, because how far off track can you get? But when change is happening at 500 miles per hour, a small error in navigation can have a huge effect. If you don’t start every day by asking, What world am I living in? What are the biggest drivers in the world? What are the biggest drivers shaping more things and places?, you won’t get the proper diagnoses. This really matters more than ever.” In this context, I am reminded again of another observation by Richard Dawkins: “Yesterday’s dangerous idea is today’s orthodoxy and tomorrow’s cliché.”

Adamson and Steckel conducted more than one hundred interviews with senior managers and category experts from diverse relevant fields. “We wrote Shift Ahead to document how the smartest companies and organizations shift their strategies in order to stay relevant in the face of the swift and exponential changes in everything from technology to the forces of globalization, from politics to culture, from consumer tastes to human behavior.” Their focus is on HOW they shift ahead – “how they stayed ahead of the curve, the competition, and the evolving requirements of their customers – especially given the barrage of evolving challenges.”

I was already familiar with Brand Asset Valuator (BAV), a diagnostic tool that not only indicates how a brand is performing, but also provides insight into what must be done to keep the brand healthy and strong (i.e. relevant) going forward. Adamson and Steckel provide a brilliant explanation of what BAV is and can do. It has four separate but interdependent “pillars,” best discussed in context, within the narrative.

As they point out, “BAV reflects the spirit of this book. First, it is forward looking…Second, BAV prevents myopic thinking – another dynamic in being able to stay relevant.” I cannot recall a prior time when the business world was more volatile, more uncertain, more complex, and more ambiguous than it is today. That is why shifts (whatever their nature and extent may be) must be made at the right time and in the right way for any organization to become and then remain relevant.

This is probably what Charles Darwin had in mind in 1859 when observing, “It is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able to adapt to and to adjust best to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” Presumably Adamson and Steckel agree with Darwin as well as with Alvin Toffer who observed (in Future Shock, 1984): “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

They cite these lessons about leadership through strategic change:

1. Leaders not only have vision; they have peripheral vision.
2. Authentic credibility helps leaders through strategic change.
3. Leaders’ personal values impact how [and how well] they lead a shift.
4. Shifts require bold action. [Channeling Helen Keller, the assertion could be rephrased, “A shift ahead is either a daring adventure or nothing.”]
5. Have a purpose – instill it, communicate it, and live it.

Allen Adamson and Joel Steckel provide an abundance of information, insights, and counsel that can help to prepare leaders to master the art and science of shifting ahead. However, the value of the material obviously depends almost entirely on how well a reader absorbs and digests it, then applies what is most relevant (there’s that word again) to the given circumstances. Shift Ahead is a brilliant achievement. Bravo!

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