Adapt or Die

In addition to Brad immortalising Charles Darwin’s profound words, these were the words quoted by my husband of an Insead professor he’d just heard at a recent business forum in Singapore. This professor was recounting the story of a Canadian ice merchant in the early 1800’s who had cornered the market of exporting ice to the sub-continent and tropical corners of the world by mining it from the frozen lakes of Massachusetts. Invention led to techniques that minimised evaporation from the exterior of the carriages, then to the use of different gases to further protect this valuable resource from the waste inevitable during transportation. Finally, his monopoly was disrupted by an American who applied those same gas inventions to manufacture ice anywhere and prolong its life through refrigeration.

This adage of evolution and invention is age old. It never loses its potency and reminds me of my own experiences where resistance to invention or change has stymied growth and hindered potential. I’ve heard it applied to failing companies or industries frequently, but hearing it again today triggered for me the string of personal experiences that have necessitated adaptation.

My career has had several professional reinventions from when I started out as a strategy consultant with Accenture. I’ve advised and funded social entrepreneurs with impact fund Social Ventures Australia, tried my tilt at religious life and built data driven profiles of companies and consumers with global credit bureau Dun & Bradstreet.

Signals, signposts, facts or data points: they have been present at each stage, pivot or change in my career. Sometimes I’ve missed them. They may have been subtle. The decibels always ratcheted louder if I chose to resist. Sometimes they were blunt to the point as experiencing the slap of a wave that once broke my shoulder.

Whenever I listened to the signal or stared at the facts, what mattered most was my response. I had a choice. No matter how vulnerable or fearful, I could allow or resist. Adapt or die. Perhaps not physically but extinguishing that inner spark can be just as grievous, and sticking my head in the sand never served me.

Artisans have always inspired me, those who are relentless in their pursuit of their craft. Those who are lead by curiosity, unafraid of continuously improving, of learning from others. Like Hayden Cox, an Australian surfboard maker manufacturing on a global scale who perfects his craft by looking to other industries such as textile, architecture and yacht design, when sourcing or experimenting with innovative materials.

Software engineers are artisans. Most are relentless in the pursuit of their craft. Whilst I am not a software technician, I have enough understanding from living in a digital world to observe brilliance when I encounter it in the form of technical products or services which are synonymous with our rapidly digitising and changing world. I’ve also been at work when these people crafting our modern world are not visible, not understood and treated as scapegoats for over runs and budget blowouts, when their craft is highly complex and variable. A craft that is at the heart of our rapidly digitizing world.

My hometown Sydney still fears failure. I’ve had a few. Who hasn’t. My most recent is the one I’m most proud of. It’s where I pushed my skills and mental capacity to their limits. I learned to expand my skills and mind by living on the edge, where it wasn’t comfortable, in the unknown and within great doubt. Whilst the company failed, some of the signals I listened to, others I avoided or let drag on.

My learnings are deep and wide. I’m lucky to be applying them now with a team of pros in their game. These pros are a collective who all have their own stories of adapting, growing and building resilience. Together, we’re passionate about reading the signs that grow, transform and empower the potential of others.

We don’t have all the answers and we definitely don’t know it all. We’re curious about what happens at the edge of machine learning and human potential. We’re not afraid of what we don’t yet know or what we will yet become. Every day is a school day. Our school is Umano, where humans are enabled by technology, and technology is enabled by humans.

Chris Boys is the founder and Managing Director of Umano.