Embrace Adaptability

by Sysco Labs Articles 5 July 2017

The world around us is a funny little place. At a glance, what’s happening around you might seem quite normal, but take a closer look, and you will notice that we actually live quite a chaotic life. Everything changes – just look at technology. A decade ago, the idea of owning a smart phone would never really have crossed your mind. In the space of a decade however, not only has this become a norm, but our lives are very heavily linked with our phones. Our bank details, our cab, maps, delicate social information, music, health trackers, and so much more is linked to the phones we carry. In today’s world, can you imagine going by without it?

Which brings us to the subject of this week’s Innovation Session at Sysco Labs – Embracing Adaptability presented by Nirmal Kumarasiri, Director of Operations at Sysco Labs.

To truly understand the importance of adaptability, let’s first take a look at the chain of events which led to the evolution of human beings. There are many theories out there on how we evolved, but for this particular example, we’ll be diving a little into the Theory of Evolution.

If you think about it, we are quite a weak species. Compared to the rest of the animal kingdom, we don’t have razor sharp teeth to attack, sharp claws to tear, or even raw power. So how is it, that we rose above far more powerful creatures to capture the top spot? The answer is simple – it is our ability to adapt.

Millions of years ago, when Africa was the cradle of life, something happened that significantly changed the world. Over time, due to the movement of the tectonic plates, mountain ranges (referred to as the Wall of Africa) rose in the east coast of Africa. The mountain range cut off moist air coming in from the sea, which caused the rainforests to transform into a savanna, changing the landscape significantly, and with it, the nature of survival itself. Trees that were used for shelter and protection disappeared, and were replaced by thick, tall grass. With their sight impaired, our primate ancestors adapted in a way that led to a chain of events which helped leapfrog human evolution. They stood up.

As ridiculous as it might sound now, an increasing body of evidence points out that this led to a series of changes in our ancestor’s center of gravity, blood circulation, muscles, and eventually even their brain to match the physical act of standing. This became a catalyst for further changes including the creation of tools to assist in hunting, and later agriculture, and the domestication of animals. Our race didn’t just adapt to survive, we adapted to thrive, and therein lies the potential of being human. Now, humans aren’t just adapting to a changing world… we are the change.

Let’s take a more recent example. During the start of the war against the LTTE, the Sri Lankan army struggled. The LTTE were elusive, tricky and fast and employed Guerrilla Warfare. Initial attempts by the Sri Lankan army failed to stop the LTTE, which led to their substantial growth and being considered one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organizations. This failure by the Sri Lankan army forced a rethink in strategy. A few notable strategies that were adopted included switching from traditional military methods, to using guerrilla warfare tactics, and embedding two or three special forces personnel into a normal army unit.

These changes increased the efficiency of operations and the confidence and strength of the general army units. These strategies, and few other factors contributed to the Sri Lankan army winning the war which was dragging on for 3 decades. Adapting to changing factors played a key role in winning the war. If the strategies had continued to  remain the same, the outcome of the war may have been very different.

Now that we’ve established the importance of adapting, it’s time to ask the question – how?

Some of the concepts that we are about to go through might be known to you. It’s very likely that these concepts have been applied to the projects you are working on, but it’s not often used on ourselves. PEST (Political, Economic, Social, Technology) and SWOT (Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, Threats) are common work place methodologies, but when applied at an individual level, can really help a person thrive. After all, you can’t adapt without knowing what you are adapting to (PEST), and what your own capabilities are (SWOT).

We propose a four-prong approach:

Redefine your motivation – You can only truly thrive if you know what motivates you. Lacking motivation for what it is that you are doing is a subconscious barrier that is placed upon yourself, which hinders your ability to adapt.

The US Navy Seals has an interesting saying, “The only easy day, was yesterday”. The Navy Seals has a 6 months training program that’s completely voluntary. This training program is known to be one of the toughest in the world, in fact a part of it is referred to as “Hell Week” because of how tough it is. Volunteers go through hell, but why? Why would any human subjugate themselves to this kind of training? The only reason is pure motivation. This is a good example of how far you can push yourself, if you are motivated by the end goal.

However, motivation tends to go down over time, which is why it is always important to take time, and redefine what motivates you, and why you’re doing what you’re doing. Look at adaptability from the lens of what is important to you.

Observe – Observation is key in adaptability – after all you can’t adapt if you don’t see what you need to adapt to.

In 1928 Sir Alexander Fleming was trying to find a wonder cure for infectious diseases. After countless failures, he threw away his Petri dishes out of annoyance, then noticed a little later that the mold growing in his discarded dishes was killing bacteria. The mold became the subject of his study and the result was penicillin, which has worked to help eradicate an astonishing number of infectious diseases for more than 100 years.

The solution to the problem ended up being the thing he discarded.

Let go of the attachment to your challenges and open your eyes to the new opportunities around you.

Develop a Course of Action – We’ve all heard of five year and ten year goals, but is simply having a goal enough? It is important to have a vision, but without setting up an action plan on how to achieve it, it’s generally meaningless. Setting up a single plan is also not sufficient; you need to think of contingencies, of all the possible scenarios that could arise on the way to your goal, and device a course of action on how to deal with it.

The power of this is made clear by the term “Seal Team Six”. “Seal Team Six” was the team that killed Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. The team devised a plan that covered all possibilities. During the operation, the first Black Hawk crashed before it reached its destination; the mission however, continued. All soldiers knew what to do in every situation, and the mission was ultimately a success. Below is a diagram that illustrates their movements:

Set Small Goals – If the only goal that you have is your main goal, the pressure can lead to failure. Setting smaller, achievable goals to achieve the bigger goal lessens the pressure put on you.

1996 is a year every Sri Lankan knows about. It’s the year that we won the ICC Cricket World Cup. Before the tournament, the team may have hoped and prayed to win the cup, however they took it one game at a time. In fact, they would have broken it down even further, they would have set goals for every 15 overs, adapting to the situation at hand and setting goals based on an ever changing situation. Ball by ball, over by over, match by match, the team slowly marched on towards that famous victory.


To be able to adapt is a key skill and could be that very fine line between success and failure. Quoting Mahatma Gandhi;

“Adaptability is not imitation. It means power of resistance and assimilation”.

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