146. Luca Dellanna on the Power of Adaptation: Adapt or Die

Ceaseless flux. Those are words Ludwig von Mises used to describe the perpetual change in business conditions that entrepreneurs experience. The consequent need, he told us, is for a process of constant adjustment. The current word for that process is adaptationEconomics For Business talks to Luca Dellanna, a leading business expert who advises companies of all sizes on managing the challenge of continuous adaptation.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

Adaptation is a necessary capacity of all businesses.

Adaptation is a necessity. The marketplace changes, customers change, technology changes. Change is the norm. Firms that don’t adapt will suffer and potentially die, so adaptation must become the norm for business. In complex systems theory, adaptation is the selection of strategies or actions that enhance survival or any other measure of success (or fitness, as its sometimes called) amidst swirling change. In business, adaptation means choosing your degree and pace of change.

Change will be externally imposed if it is not internally embraced.

Businesses can influence the level of change impact. They can critically examine their mental models, and assess their products, processes, beliefs, and people, to evaluate their fitness for adapting to market change. To avoid change being imposed from outside the firm — to avoid negative natural selection, in the evolutionary metaphor – all layers of the firm must embrace change, and proactively adapt. Eliminate unfit products and processes, pursue the development of new ones that are better adapted, and upgrade people resources through thoughtful hiring and active learning.

Adaptation is different than responsiveness — it’s embracing harm.

We talk a lot about a business’s responsiveness to customer wants and preferences, especially when those preferences are fluid and incompletely articulated and require interpretation. Responsiveness is critical — but it’s different from adaptation. It’s response to an external signal. Adaptiveness is embracing change inside the firm.

Luca Dellanna has a striking way of communicating this: he advises his clients to deliberately expose themselves to what he calls “harm” — new problems never before encountered. The exposure must not be to a problem that could overwhelm the firm, but one that can be addressed at a subsidiary level or component level or via adjustment in a shared mental model. Luca calls this “small harm” — specific problems (e.g., the price of a product or service compared to the customer’s willingness to pay). Proactively probe the problem, e.g., in a high pricing test, generate feedback and actively use the learning to adapt. Another word for “small harm” is stressors: situations that put stress on the firm. Set up systems to seek out these stressors so that adaptation is deliberate, and can be enculturated, rather than wait for a crisis that requires an emergency response.

Lack of discomfort is a problem to avoid.

Identify the leading indicators that describe the conditions that will change the future.

Lagging indicators — such as revenue — are metrics that describe the past. There are leading indicators available such as number of customer contacts (describing what the pipeline might look like in the future), and satisfaction scores (describing future repeat sales). Luca recommends pairing one lagging indicator with one leading indicator to develop a metrics system.

This is not the same as popular consultant-proposed metrics systems such as OKR (Objectives and Key Results). Objectives are not leading indicators. The best leading indicators are behaviors, because these can be easily adjusted if observed to be in need of change. Falling behind on objectives does not yield an actionable response if not linked to a causal factor. Inadequate behaviors (e.g., conducting a sales call without following the proven process) can be addressed, especially if they are clearly linked to positive outcomes.

This is the same principle as Amazon’s focus on what they call controllable inputs, and Amazon knows a lot about driving business growth.

There are several strategies to pursue adaptation.

Redundancy (having more than needed): A focus on efficiency and “no waste” can be detrimental to adaptation if it leaves no resources for experimentation and exploration. Employees need time to work on new things, not just on current tasks and issues.

Bottom-up initiatives: Central command and control can’t run everything, anticipate every harm, or plan every experiment. Ensure entrepreneurial empowerment of front-line employees and functions so that they can initiate learning.

Avoid game-over: In experimenting, calibrate the risk to ensure that a negative result is not overwhelming, and, in regular operations, be aware of any possibility of a major crisis — a Black Swan event — and be sure that it will not destroy the firm or deliver a setback from which it will be hard to recover.

Never stop exploring, in a culture of anti-fragility.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb famously coined the term “anti-fragile”. The company that has the most well-developed capacity to learn from problems and harm is the most anti-fragile. The culture of anti-fragility is always to surface problems when they are encountered and address them at the source. Luca stresses that culture is built when everyone in the company can see a consistent set of actions in which the trade-offs of addressing problems are consistent with the stated vision. For example, a culture of safe operations will be reinforced when safety precautions are taken even when the cost, in time or money or both, is high.

The leading indicator is that every individual and every operation and sub-operation is following safe practices, and that the company readily commits resources when a new safety procedure or installation is proven to be effective. If the trade-off is made that the new procedure is effective but too expensive to install, the culture will be punctured because the company has acted contrary to its declared vision.

Additional Resources

“The Power Of Adaptation” (PDF): Download PDF

Read Luca Dellanna’s book, The Power Of AdaptationDownload PDF

Another application of adaptation, Teams Are Adaptive Systems: 12 Principles For Effective Management by Luca Dellanna: Download PDF

Visit Luca Dellanna’s website to find more resources:

E-mail Luca at [email protected]

138. Mark McGrath: The Adaptive Entrepreneurial Method: VUCA, OODA, IOT

Austrian economics is distinctive in its recognition and, indeed, embrace of continuous change: customer preferences change, competitors’ actions change, markets change, technology changes, prices change, business methods change. New knowledge is continuously created and accumulated. And Austrian economics equally recognizes that entrepreneurial businesses must change in response: capital combinations change, supplier and customer relationships change, organization structure changes, business portfolios and value propositions change. Continuous change is required — which is something business has not traditionally been designed for. How do businesses manage continuous change?

In the current digital age, the rate of change in the external business environment is accelerating, largely as a consequence of rapid technological evolution and the ways in which customer behavior and preferences change in response. We plan to cover the issue of continuous change from multiple angles in the coming weeks and months.

This week, Mark McGrath joins us to review a tool for value creation amidst continuous, roiling change. It has been around for a while and so is proven in multiple arenas and situations. It goes by the name of OODA.

Key Takeaways and Actionable Insights

The OODA loop is a deeply sourced tool that draws on eastern philosophy, western science, and aligns with Austrian economics.

When a firm as a network of individuals, knowledge, ideas, tools, processes and resources works with clients and customers and their systems, all should be better off as a result of their co-ordinated action. The better the capacity to learn and make adjustments together, the better the capability to recognize and seize opportunities, and to act at co-ordinated speed. Those who can handle the rate of change fastest will be the most successful.

The originator of the OODA loop model, John Boyd, synthesized thinking from multiple sources about this problem. In business, we can call it the Adaptive Entrepreneurial Method.

The loop is triggered by uncertainty, or what is referred to in the model as VUCA:

Volatility — circumstances change abruptly and unpredictably;

Uncertainty — knowledge is incomplete and the future is indeterminate;

Complexity — we are individuals in a dynamic interconnected whole with emergent outcomes;

Ambiguity — multiple interpretations from multiple observers, and multiple conclusions.

VUCA enters the OODA loop as unfolding interaction with the ever-changing external environment or market, as information and data coming into the company, and as unfolding circumstances, whether these are the company’s own sales trends and customer relationships or the activities of competitors.

VUCA is the state of the universe. It’s the normal condition that entrepreneurs should assume as the basis for action. It also creates an exciting state of opportunity in which dynamically adaptive entrepreneurial businesses can thrive.

OODA is a feedback loop.

OODA stands for observing, orienting, deciding, acting — a continuous process.

The OODA Loop

Orientation is critical to successful operation of the model. For a firm or for an individual entrepreneur, orientation is a mélange of inputs: mindset, personality, our way of thinking and interpreting, previous experiences and how we’ve processed them, our ability to process new information, our ability to handle change, our ability to analyze and break things down while simultaneously piecing things together and synthesizing them into an insight or construct that never existed before.

Orientation houses all our biases, and all our cognitive models. It’s how we perceive and how we experience the world. It determines how we process all the information we observe.

Decisions are hypotheses.

From our orientation-determined analysis and synthesis of incoming data, we envision a future state: what could happen if we did something? In Misesian terms, we imagine what it would be like in the future if we were able to address our own uneasiness — if we were to change our current state and trade it for another one. Any action that follows must be preceded by a decision, a hypothesis of what we think might happen.

Action is an experiment to test the hypothesis.

In applying the OODA loop, entrepreneurs demonstrate a bias for learning and a bias for action. We learn by testing what happens when we act and making new observations of the outcomes of the action. These outcomes will give us new signals to employ in re-orienting to ensure that our decisions and actions are well-aligned with reality.

The OODA loop model is consistent with the Explore and Expand approach to business strategy.

At Economics For Business, we have frequently urged entrepreneurial firms to abandon business school strategic thinking and replace it with an Explore-And-Expand approach, running many fast, low-cost exploratory experiments and quickly expanding investment in those that work, discarding others. In OODA loop, experiments are decisions and actions, and re-orientation results in expanding application of the successful ones.

In OODA, we continuously build and re-build our perception of the VUCA world and attempt to match our perception with reality through exploration and expansion. We aim to ensure our orientation is attuned to the way the world is and not to the way we want it to be or imagine it to be.

The more we learn, the more we build and re-build, the faster we can advance. Speed of learning is important, so long as it is based on well-processed information.

Guidance and control.

In the OODA loop graphic, there are two areas designated “implicit guidance and control”: our actions and our observations. Our orientation implicitly guides and controls both. Our orientation as entrepreneurs or as economists will always affect how we perceive things. Where some might see an obstacle, others see an opportunity. That’s orientation at work. On the action side, orientation implicitly guides and controls our actions. There are some things we can do automatically, employing heuristics or procedures that we don’t stop to think about. This also is orientation at work — and at speed.

Continuous testing.

The OODA loop, processing VUCA information into decisions and action via continuous reorientation, is a test. An entrepreneur is always being tested. As time moves unstoppably forward, new challenges continuously emerge. It’s the ceaseless flux of human affairs, as Mises put it in Human Action.

If we maintain an open and flexible or agile approach or orientation to this continuous testing, we’ll avoid failure.

Focusing on a well-understood purpose will eliminate wasted time and wasted action.

The Adaptive Entrepreneurial Model has three major elements: VUCA, the way the world is; OODA, as described above; and IOT. IOT stands for In Order To: the purpose or mission. As we deal with VUCA, and continuously change our orientation as we learn from our decisions and experiments, quickly finding out what works and what doesn’t, we must never lose sight of our purpose and our intent. What are we trying to accomplish?

Everyone in our firm, or on our team, must share the same purpose and be able to articulate it in the same way. When that’s the case, creative and co-ordinating action can move forward without instruction: we don’t have to tell people what to do when they’re in the middle of VUCA so long as they have the same shared purpose in mind. Everyone focuses on what needs to happen and why. There’s never action for action’s sake; it’s always with a shared purpose. If team members do not share the same understanding of purpose, then they’re creating more VUCA. If they do share understanding, the orchestration of their individual efforts produces harmony.

People, ideas, things — in that order.

All action is human action, all decisions are human decisions, all teams are human teams. When orientations are aligned, harmonious co-ordinated action is possible. There’s a high priority on relationships — with teammates, colleagues, customers, vendors, partners.

In a business utilizing the OODA model, people always come first because they are the ones who act. Ideas follow, judged through the lens of helping people to decide and act. Things — technology, property, money — are at the third priority level to ensure they support people and enable their ideas.

“A sound understanding in application of these comments will yield geometric results.”

Improved results are the repayment for the effort expended to study the Adaptive Entrepreneurial Method.

Additional Resources

“The Adaptive Entrepreneurial Model — Core Thesis” (PDF): Download PDF

John Boyd’s “OODA Loop Graphic” (PPT): Download PPT

“The Epistemology of the OODA Loop” (PDF): Download PDF

“Destruction And Creation” by John R. Boyd (PDF): Download PDF

The Theory Of Dynamic Efficiency by Jesús Huerta De Soto: Download PDF

The Ultimate Foundation Of Economic Science by Ludwig von Mises: Read it on

Economics In The Digital Age Is Different.

Steve Denning is one of our most important and insightful writers at the intersection of economics, business, and management. He has been in the lead in alerting the business world to the imperative of new thinking about organization, embracing agility and the end of hierarchy, agile processes, and digital transformation. His message: management must change to keep up with technology.

Recently, he turned his attention to economics. His conclusion: economics must change to keep up with technology. Mainstream economics that is; we Austrians may claim a special position, as I’ll argue below.

A school or tradition of economics (such as “mainstream economics”) tends to be defined by stacking dead economists and their theories one on top of another and calling the resulting intellectual edifice a definitive body of work for the filling of textbooks. Later arrivals to the school limit themselves to publishing marginal elucidations. Keynesian economics continues as a set of theories derived from the conditions between the first and second world wars in socialist Britain. Keynesian economists in 2021 continue to insist that these theories still hold, and, in fact, they are the backbone of US Government economic policy today, and the reason it is so disastrous.

In his article Why Mainstream Economists Miss Digital Innovation, Denning drives home just exactly why this backward-looking process of economic theorizing takes us so far off base. Mainstream economists (he quotes Nobel prizewinner Robert Solow) had a very difficult time even recognizing the contribution of digital services to economic value. The “real economy”, Solow opined, was about physical products. Now the largest firms in the world are those delivering primarily digital services. So much for the validity of Nobel rise recognition.

Denning also calls out Robert J Gordon, who asserts that the great innovations occurred before 1970  – innovations such as electricity, household appliances that reduce work, air conditioning that increases comfort and productivity, flushing toilets that improve sanitation and health. Gordon dismisses innovation after 1970 as narrowly focused on entertainment, communication, and information technology. He referred to the arrival of the iPhone as a minor event in entertainment and communications. He failed to realize how a handheld computer in the hands of billions of people radically increases productivity and economic growth, which has been associated with the eradication of poverty, as well as changing how people are educated, given access to healthcare, and put on a pathway to higher aspirations and better lives.

Denning uses this example as an illustration for his conclusion that mainstream economics misses “that digital innovation has changed almost every aspect of human life”. Of what relevance is a field of study that is so oblivious to real life?

Fortunately, there’s a school of economics that understands the dominant role of digital innovation: Austrian economics. There are several points of difference with mainstream economics. One is the understanding that Austrians have of the market as a process and the economy as a constantly changing capital structure. Mainstream economists’ main tool is the study of equilibrium: under what conditions would the economy be perfectly balanced with no more change? Austrians understand that there is no equilibrium, and equilibrium is not a state we desire. The market is a flow of continuous, often dramatic and always accelerating change. Technologies build on technologies and change becomes exponential in terms of impact on growth and improvement. More and more customer value is generated, without limit.

Austrian capital theory recognizes capital in the economy as a flowing river of technology enabling more and more customer value, and constantly changing and improving in response to customers’ never-ending demand for betterment – faster, cheaper, more efficient, more convenient, more comfortable, more productive. Customers demand this continuous change, and technology helps to deliver it.

Another tool in the Austrian economists’ toolbox is the understanding of the role of the entrepreneur, entrepreneurship, and the entrepreneurial method. The entrepreneur has no role in mainstream economics. No one has figured out a mathematical equation to represent this most human of innovative influence. Entrepreneurs are those who look at the world and ask themselves how they can make it better than it is. That’s why Steve Denning can quote an entrepreneur like Marc Andreessen who wrote  “Why Software Is Eating The World” but can’t find any economists to quote.

He could have referred to W. Brian Arthur’s paper, Competing Technologies, Increasing Returns, and Lock-In By Historical Events, where he anticipated exponential growth and the rise of the tech titans. Brian Arthur calls his brand of economics “complexity economics”, which is a strand of Austrian economics. Denning might also have quoted Todd H. Chiles on Organizational Emergence, his theory about how firms and markets advance rapidly through stages of dramatic change and increasing value generation as a result of both technology and changing consumer preferences.

Steve Denning is right to say that it’s imperative that mainstream economics catches up with technology. He should go further and call for the widespread recognition of Austrian economics as the economics of radical economic change. It’s already the go-to theory to explain bitcoin, free software, and the economics of video games. Mainstream will never catch up.