From Surviving to Thriving - How Businesses Grow by Embracing Adversity

Jeronimo De Miguel

I grew up in Mendoza, a region nested at the foot of the Andes and the heart of Argentina’s winemaking industry, where grapes grow at some of the highest altitudes in the world in semi-arid conditions. You’d think this setting would give the fruit a hard time, but good winemakers know that grapes grow best when the vine has been exposed to a certain amount of stressors, and they’ve learned to turn the local climate into their best ally.

Learning From Mother Nature

“Balanced stress” is a concept botanists know well. Leave a plant to grow in a perfect environment with enough water and space to grow, and it will feel comfortable, spending its entire energy on spreading and growing leaves. But introduce just the right amount of disruptions – for instance restricting the water and light supply and nutrients or leaving little room in the ground for roots to grow – and the plant will focus its energy on reproducing itself, producing bigger fruits and flowers.

This is true of many plant species, including cannabis. Entire ecosystems are based on the ability of organisms to adapt to environmental stressors and live in constant interaction with each other as part of a diverse whole. Some trees have evolved to produce seeds only after wildfires take place, and entire forests have adapted to such fires to the point where their survival depends on them.

And it’s true of humans as well. Psychologists say that some exposure to stress and adversity during childhood – but not too much – is helping us become more adaptable, more confident and less fearful of change. By contrast, overprotected children may grow up to become unable to develop the key social abilities they need to build resilience, cope with stress and become fully independent adults.

It seems we’re wired to grow by adapting to life’s challenges, and to a larger extent by exposing ourselves to new opportunities, people and places. By doing so, we build the resilience that helps us go through life not only by surviving but thriving. So if growing from life’s challenges is a skill we can learn to master, then why aren’t organizations using this principle for themselves?

The Risks Of Staying In The Comfort Zone

I’ve watched countless companies stagnate or even disappear because they couldn’t leave their comfort zone. Toys R Us went bankrupt because it grew too confident after spending decades as leader of the toy industry, and refused to adapt to changes in the retail sector. Kodak, a company founded in 1881 around one of humanity’s most important technological innovations, somehow failed to maneuver the photography’s industry turn to digital. Both companies failed not because they had no place in the online age – they both had massive resources to anticipate and execute that change – but because, having reached success, they became too comfortable and complacent in their own success to remain agile and adapt to seismic changes.

The Growth Opportunity When Embracing Adversity

I believe there’s a way for companies to reach a state of “balanced stress,” just like Mendoza winemakers have learned to master environmental conditions to produce some of the world’s best grapes, or cannabis cultivators have been experimenting with light, water, and even fertilizer scarcity to yield new flower attributes. Businesses can and should expose themselves to new ideas, new opportunities and challenges in order to grow.

Through its partnership with Parley, Adidas managed to turn an environmental problem that was a direct consequence of its role as a waste-producing apparel manufacturer – oceans plastic pollution – into a business opportunity that’s pioneering the way corporations can embed principles of the circular economy into their operations. Where a traditional CSR stunt may have served to raise Adidas’s profile as a supporter of environmental causes, its collaboration with Parley allowed the company to actually achieve real technological innovation by producing high-quality sports gear from recycled plastics, reaping financial benefits as well as environmental clout.

The Power of Partnership Ecosystems

I co-founded Will & Way to help businesses form those types of smart, purpose-driven partnerships that breed resilience. Our consultancy builds entire ecosystems of like-minded yet diverse organizations that drive each other out of their comfort zones.

We think traditional competitive behaviour, highly focused on market share, can push businesses into an overprotective mode that restricts growth and innovation. So instead of helping our clients get a bigger slice of the pie, we focus on expanding the whole pie by nurturing new types of partnerships that benefit everyone involved.

We don’t see business, marketing, and corporate social responsibility as distinct functions. Instead, we follow a holistic approach that unleashes the company’s potential for greater business and social impact. Our team explores and validates unforeseen opportunities, mapping the necessary resources, capabilities, talents, and tactics to ultimately create incremental shared value. We source and onboard the right mix of partners, aligning all parties towards a common mission. And we bring those partnerships to life through carefully crafted activation roadmaps that deploy over a wide range of marketing channels.

Our process essentially guides companies into self-disruption in order to push them beyond survival into thriving, reaping countless benefits in the process – increased innovation capabilities, enhanced access to experts, introduction to new markets and talent acquisition and retention are just some of them.

This requires leaders to embrace discomfort, adopt a creative mindset to partnership building, and think beyond organizational roles and silos to consider social, economic and environmental impact from the customer’s perspective. This is hard work. But it amounts to the difference between a business that’s struggling to survive in a rapidly changing market landscape, and one that thrives by seeing itself as part of a vibrant and diverse ecosystem of actors united by a shared purpose.

Get Uncomfortable

To thrive, you must embrace discomfort, break down pre-conceptions and barriers, think beyond your organization’s walls. It starts with getting uncomfortable.

  • Gather a small team of brilliant thinkers with various backgrounds

  • Together, re-interpret your industry and business through a customer lens

  • Consider limitless possibilities to improve your people's lives & their communities

  • Map out your resources and capabilities to understand levers you can pull and gaps to fill

I’m heading to the Fifteen Seconds Festival in Graz, Austria this week, where I’ll be speaking about how this approach and a new type of consumer demand can help the cannabis industry move beyond recreational use and towards widespread normalization.