The Key to Corporate Survival: Adaptability

Last Updated Nov 24, 2008 4:48 PM EST

iphone-jobs.jpgMost successful companies don't end up the way they began. They evolve. Business success is a process of trial and error, learning and adapting. It's no coincidence that human development and the scientific method work pretty much the same way.

Adaptability is the key to survival, not just in nature, but in the corporate world, too.

Sometimes adaptation is a one-shot deal, a major mutation based on changing environmental conditions. IBM's repositioning from a computer giant to an integrated IT services company, for example.

Other times, adaptation is a component of corporate culture. Products or technologies envisioned for one application are adapted to another. Serial entrepreneurs bring lessons learned from one company to the next.

In all cases, learning and adaptation is the key mechanism at play. Here are a few examples of how this sort of thing works in the real world:

Apple
Apple is, at its core, a computer company. That's how it began and that's still its biggest business. But CEO Steve Jobs's move into smartphones was a reaction to wireless phones increasingly becoming multi-use devices with built-in MP3 and web browsing capabilities, threatening Apple's core iMac and iPod / iTunes businesses.

Not surprisingly, the iPhone's revolutionary multi-touch display was originally developed for a touchscreen PC, and its operating system is based on the Mac's OS X.

Sound ID
Sound ID has some of the best Bluetooth headsets on the market. Not surprisingly, founder Rodney Perkins is a Stanford Otologist (ear specialist) who previously founded a successful hearing aid company, ReSound. Of course it seems like an obvious move to leverage hearing aid technology for use in personal communications, after the fact.

Texas Instruments
TI's founders initially developed seismic exploration technology for the petroleum industry; the military adapted it for tracking German U-boats in World War II, among other things. In addition to developing the first Silicon transistor and integrated circuit, TI later delved into calculators, defense electronics, computers, digital watches, and speech synthesis products.

But TI's core product today - the vaulted TMS320 DSP used in most of the world's wireless phones - was originally developed for a defense program.

OLED Technology
I was just reading about OLED technology â€" originally invented for display applications â€" being developed as a source for diffused, low-voltage lighting at GE and other companies. The panels are so thin and versatile, they can be adapted to virtually any form-factor. Something to keep an eye on.

I can go on and on with examples: from Intel to Microsoft, from Sony to Samsung, from Motorola to Qualcomm.

Is it any wonder that "speed, flexibility, and adaptability to change" jumped into the top five concerns among executives, as measured by the Conference Board in response to the current economic crisis?

Well, it's one thing to be concerned, but creating a culture of adaptability is another thing entirely. That's the real challenge. Is adaptability part of your corporate culture? If not, how do you get there from here?

(Image courtesy CNET Networks)