Today, in every single sector, the same theme dominates: change. Be it business, government, academia, or the military, the ground on which we operate and try to effectively compete is shifting.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," you're saying to yourself. "It's always about change."

And you'd be right --and yet oh so wrong. Because as familiar as it sounds, this change is different. And depending on where your head is, this new reality is either your advantage or your undoing. First let's look at this new kind of change; then let's examine your head.

The New Environment: Constant Change

Across the globe, leaders are keenly aware of a form of change unlike any before. In its 2017 CEO Survey, consulting firm PWC spoke with 1,379 such leaders and reached an interesting if at first confusing conclusion: while the past twenty years have seen tremendous convergence as a result of globalization and rapid technological progress, with it has come greater divergence.

How can it be both at the same time, and how does this exemplify the new environment that 21st-century leaders and their organizations face? The increasing ability to connect with so many others has resulted in an explosion of different ideas, beliefs, values, innovations, and markets. But the rapid flow of information and ideas also results in a proliferation of choices, volatility in what the market wants, and continuous movement in the political and social landscapes trying to make sense of it all.

So while all of this creates great opportunity, 82 percent of CEOs say it is also resulting in deeply uncertain economic growth when the only predictable thing about the landscape is that it will keep shifting. One bank CEO summed up the environment this way: "Volatility - yes, unpredictability - yes, but that is now part and parcel of our daily practice." (italics added)

Change is no longer periodic or episodic, that is, something you can accurately anticipate, gradually move to accommodate, and then settle into a predictable new status quo around. In today's environment change is constant.

How To Compete: Be A Labrador, Not An Ostrich

Those are the simple facts about the landscape in which we all compete and seek to thrive. What to do about it is trickier. From a leadership standpoint, CEOs say that a key part of the solution is hiring. They believe they need to recruit people with skills that fit the current environment. "That is," said that same bank CEO, today's organizations have "a need to adapt (their) businesses to continue operating even under conditions of the highest uncertainty."

That leads them to conclude that they need to hire future employees possessing these most important skills: creativity and innovation (77 percent), leadership (75 percent), adaptability (61 percent), and problem solving (61 percent). And yet these same executives also report that these skills are the most difficult to recruit for. Does this mean we're stuck? It all depends on how you look at the world and where your head is at, so to speak.

More than anything else, to be adaptable or creative in this new environment, even to be an effective leader, requires a practiced ability to be "open" to new ideas, to questioning old ways, even to where those questions and new ideas come from. And yet our great tendency in times of uncertainty is to double down on what we already know and do. (If you think about it, concluding you'll hire new people with new skills to deal with a changing environment may be a good step, but it's only tweaking at the edges if you keep everything else about the way you do business pretty much the same.

Doing more of the same is something we pretty easily convince ourselves to be a good move, primarily because it feels predictable and familiar. But it's also an ostrich move. Ostriches are known to put their heads down in reaction to danger, especially when sitting on a nest. They do not in fact bury their heads in the sand as the old wives' tale tells it, but the fact that most of us believe that myth to be true only makes a stronger point: if the move you choose is to burrow in deeper to protect the current nest on which you rest, the odds are high that you're leaving yourself a sitting duck (or ostrich, as it were).

Everyone's Favorite Dog--For a Good Reason

You need to be a Labrador instead.

Labradors have a completely different "head move" when something new appears. They pause, lift their head up slightly and, more tellingly, tilt their head to one side. It's almost as if they sense they need a different view. It's cute, but it's also effective. They are a breed known for flushing out what's not easily seen and for bringing back or 'retrieving' the prize. Their whole demeanor is one of openness - not to the point of a loss of focus on what they are tasked to do, but open in a way that makes them adept at doing it exceptionally regardless of the changing terrain.

An oversimplification? Perhaps. But only slightly. The way forward for today's leaders requires a new move and a new mindset. And those good old dogs just happen to know the right trick for accomplishing both. 

Published on: Oct 25, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.