Red Light! Green Light! 4 Factors That Drive Adaptive Organizations to Take the Lead

MAY 28 / Kierra Leimert



“Greenlight!” We all rushed towards the one chosen as IT in a frenzy. Hoping that if we ran harder or listened a little closer, our quick reactions would lead the pack to victory.

“Red light!” Immediately, we all froze in our tracks. A few were sent back to the starting line. The rest stayed as still as humanly possible, waiting in suspense that IT would spot a faint movement and send us back too.

We all froze, except one. There was one whose eyes never left IT. She would pause just as IT met her gaze, then resume gliding forward with ease, agile and courageous.

She wasn’t the fastest. She might even fall or get set back a few times, but she always came out ahead in the end. And we always found ourselves trying to follow her lead.

The Adaptive Capacity to Take the Lead (4 Factors)

While many of us are still getting our bearings on our new normal, leaders have already stepped up to the plate. From home broadcasts and workouts to new markets and offerings, front runners have emerged and adapted to the new landscape of COVID-19.

How do leading organizations have the capacity to pivot so quickly during uncertain times? At UPLIFT STUDIO X LAB, we believe this adaptive capacity to take the lead is nurtured by 4 factors: exceptional leadership, strategic agility, meaningful marketing, and connected culture.

1. Exceptional Leadership

In moments of extreme uncertainty, we turn to our leaders, but what do our leaders do? Leadership expert Ronald Heifetz, in collaboration with Donald Laurie on “The Work of Leadership”, outlined a framework for adaptive leadership that has stood the test of time. The framework holds that shielding followers with stability and comfort doesn’t help them adapt to the obstacle. Instead, leaders help their followers adapt by using their authority to open up communication channels, knock people out of their comfort zones, and challenge existing roles and unproductive norms.

Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, did just this. His announcement that the league was suspended came early in the pandemic, while many leaders were still silently awaiting more information. It wasn’t long before other leagues and major events followed. His decisive action and honesty protected millions of fans and set an example of how to do our part to flatten the curve.

Silver wasn’t the only exceptional leader that stood out during the pandemic. New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, is praised for her quick response and open communications regarding the country’s crisis plan. Nike CEO John Donahue’s calm, clear and actionable response to the crisis landed him the #1 ranking out of all the top Fortune 100 CEOs on SJR’s CEO leaderboard. These exceptional leaders leveraged their authority to challenge norms, took decisive action and established open communication, resulting in positive outcomes for their people.

Related articles: What Good Leadership Looks Like During This Pandemic

2. Strategic Agility

Uncertain situations are ripe with both obstacles and opportunities, but you have to act fast. “Agile” is more than just a software movement, it’s the quintessential quality that allows organizations to think and act fast. Steve Denning has identified 3 Laws of Agile Organizations: the law of the customer (i.e. create continuous value), the law of the small team (i.e. establish small cross-functional teams), and the law of the network (i.e. establish a network of multidirectional teams). Organizations with this decentralized structure and focus on creating value are able to remain agile and pivot their strategies fast when new opportunities emerge.

Peloton’s strategic agility during the pandemic has helped them recover from a different type of crisis. You may remember the notorious Peloton holiday ad (and Aviation Gin rebuttal that followed). With stocks on the decline, things didn’t look promising until millions of gym members found themselves locked out of their usual fitness centres. Peloton was ready to pivot. They quickly adapted their online subscription strategy with a free trial, making them one of the first to offer a home workout solution. Despite the previous backlash, Peloton’s stock shot back up.

Peloton wasn’t the only one agile enough to come out of the pandemic with a fresh start. When grocery stores were selling out of sanitizers, local distilleries were quick to adapt their distilling process and supply a new hand sanitizer offering. When the Health sector struggled to meet the high demand for COVID-19 screening, Google was quick to adapt its AI technology and claim territory in the new market. These clever organizations were ready to pivot their strategies fast when new opportunities arose.

Related articles: Peloton is Clearly Benefiting From Global Quarantines New Data Show; How Google Plans to Use AI To Reinvent The $3 Trillion US Healthcare Industry

3. Meaningful Marketing

Extreme and uncertain situations can create dramatic shifts in consumer behaviour and needs. With social distancing, brands are forced to connect with customers at a distance, but customers still need and want a meaningful connection. Take CMS Wire’s 4 Cornerstones of the Digital Customer Experience for example relevance, timeliness, context, and consistency. Effective digital marketing is personal. Taking the time to understand the customer’s situation and how we can add meaning, allows brands to build more seamless experiences and genuine connections, even at a distance.

When the pandemic closed studio sets all over North America, Jimmy Fallon almost immediately began filming The Tonight Show: At Home Edition with his family. At first, the home broadcasts were far from perfect, but they presented a picture of the host that was all too relatable to viewers at home. A few iterations and Instagram posts later, the show was reinvented and the audience tuned in. Their digital approach provided an example to the rest of the industry that the show must go on, production crew or not, and set the framework for other popular shows to follow.

Fallon wasn’t the only one responding to the pandemic’s setbacks with a meaningful digital experience. When shopping malls and stores shut down, Nike continued to engage consumers with personalized fitness apps, digital training networks and virtual classes that helped support their customers’ home fitness goals and encouraged customers to engage with their online shopping experiences. These intelligent online marketing strategies tapped into the audience’s unique situation and allowed them to continue to build meaningful relationships with their audience.

Related Articles: How Late Night Shows are Handling Coronavirus Quarantine, Nike Could Come Out of the Coronavirus in a Position of Strength

4. Connected Culture

COVID-19 has sparked a work-from-home movement. Organizations are finding that it takes more than the right tech to keep teams plugged in. Corporate culture expert Edgar Schein’s  "Corporate Culture Survival Guide" demonstrates that members of an organization are more prone to embrace change when the corporate culture aligns with the company’s mission and goals. As organizations approach digital transformation initiatives, cultural alignment is the glue that will hold their members together, connected and inspired to embrace the change.

As COVID-19 restrictions ramped up, Twitter was one of the first to issue mandatory remote work for staff. Since then, they announced that this decision is permanent.  Twitter was quickly joined by several other tech leaders including Facebook, Microsoft and Apple. Their quick jump to a fully remote workforce was empowered through digital-ready cultures. Together they have triggered a chain reaction that will disrupt the future workplace as we know it.

The “Silicone Valley” culture of these companies has given them a unique advantage on the remote landscape and beyond. Tech leaders have been venturing out to spark transformation in more traditional sectors such as Healthcare and Education. From Telehealth to remote learning, the future is increasingly digital. Those organizations that build up the cultural capacity to drive transformation will remain the most connected and ready to thrive.

Related articles: Digital Transformation for Good Shines as we Fight Covid-19, How AI Use Cases Are Evolving Time COVID-19

Thrive in the Wake of Disruption 

We’re all facing a myriad of red lights right now. It’s not those who run the fastest or those who listen the closest, it’s those who have built the capacity to spot the green lights and turn obstacles into opportunities that will lead their teams to victory.

The UPLIFT model brings the alchemy of leadership, strategy, marketing and culture together in just the right quantities and sequence to create a reaction that becomes the secret sauce of the enterprise. This is how we adapt and uplift the enterprise towards a new preferred future.


The UPLIFT team is here to help your enterprise explore the adjacent possible, build adaptive capacity and thrive together. Let’s chat! —>