When NASA scientists studied the effect of weightlessness on the ability of spiders to spin a web in orbit on the International Space Station, the arachnids were despite having very little time to adjust eventually successful, much to the surprise of researchers.
“The spiders gave us a really compelling, inspiring example of how do you adapt when everything changes immediately,” ATB chief economist Todd Hirsch said recently during a virtual presentation dubbed “The future of adapting to unwanted change.”
In collaboration with his colleague Rob Roach, ATB’s deputy chief economist and managing director, Hirsch published in 2017 a book called Spiders in Space: Successfully Adapting to Unwanted Change, which was written through the lens of what business owners and people experienced in the fallout from the 2014-15 crash in the price of oil.
When the book was released, the economists wondered what else would qualify as a sudden, unwanted change, and a global health crisis was certainly an example.
“We had no idea that about four years later, at the beginning of 2020, the entire planet Earth would be living through a pandemic, very much like the one we talked about, where practically overnight everything changed for everybody,” said Hirsch.
Despite the ongoing adversity and uncertainty presented by the pandemic, the economists focused on the silver linings.
“You hate to talk about COVID-19 in any positive light,” said Hirsch.
“But in some ways, the pandemic gave us a second opportunity to examine how do individuals, how do business, how do not-for-profits — how do they adapt and change in a pandemic? We’re living a real-time, almost lab-type situation.”
Although the economists identified in their 2017 book numerous traits they consider critical to successfully adapting to change, they also stressed there is no guaranteed, magic fix, silver bullet solution.
Additionally, lifespans are a natural cycle of any business, with very few still around today that existed 100 or even 500 years ago, said Hirsch.
“For those Albertans who maybe lost a business during COVID-19, it does not mean that they were an unsuccessful adapter,” he said.
“What it means is, businesses don’t adapt — it’s the human beings who run the businesses, that’s where the adapting takes place…businesses don’t adapt, human beings adapt.”
That’s important, he said, adding people should not feel as though they have failed if their business had to wind down or shutter in the wake of COVID-19.
An individual’s personal story of adaptation during turbulent times might even include letting go of a business and considering what their next steps might be, he said.
The economists identified the traits they discussed during the course of multiple interviews they conducted with Alberta-based businesses and non-profit groups, who shared insight on how they navigated through uncharted waters.
While they consider all of the traits important, they started out by emphasizing one that stands out, which they dubbed a group or business’s core story.
“It was evident in the interviews we did, that they knew who they were as organizations, individuals and businesses,” said Hirsch.
Just like a spider knows it creates webs — even when in the weightless environment of space — the people the economists spoke with during their COVID interviews knew who they were, he said.
“That was fundamental,” he said.
Illustrating the point, Roach recounted the experience of the Kerby Centre in Calgary, which provides programs and services for older adults and their families.
Previously hosting a variety of activities in their facility, having to close their doors forced the organization to re-evaluate their delivery model.
“What they understood was that their core story wasn’t that they were a building — it was that they are a source of connection between services and individuals in the seniors' population,” he said.
That understanding enabled them to think differently about coming up with new approaches, rather than tossing in the towel when the building closed, he added.
Included among the other traits the economists discussed is what they call realistic faith, which they described as the difficult balance between identifying one’s limits while still aiming high. This in turn led to the importance of not only seeking out help when needed, but also being willing to accept it when offered, he said.
A common thread among all of the stories they heard during their interviews was how organizations and businesses that adapted inevitably get a helping hand, sometimes from unexpected places.
“We all need to seek help, and we need to take that help when it comes along,” said Hirsch.
Keeping an open mind — being willing to experiment and look at challenges from different perspectives to find opportunities where others might see obstacles — is also a valuable part of the equation, said Roach.
That means keeping one’s wits about them, said Hirsch, adding successful transitions hinge on hard work, passion, calculated risk taking as well as mental toughness, or the drive to get up in the morning even when you don’t want to .
“If you are experiencing sudden, unwanted change, you have to go into this with eyes wide open,” he said.
“This is going to be lots of hard work. If you’re sort of lukewarm on the whole idea, it’s not likely to work out.”
Since the release of their book Spiders in Space, the economists conducted new interviews to get insight from those who experienced a measure of success despite the pandemic. That process, said Roach, uncovered another five traits that bubbled to the surface: practising empathy and listening; building and maintaining trust; establishing and nurturing strong relationships; celebrating success; and acting with haste.
Trust is a big one for companies that had to close down offices and allow employees to do their jobs remotely from home with the expectation work would still get done without supervision, said Hirsch.
“Being able to trust your employees as they’re working remotely, that was a pretty common experience for a lot of businesses during COVID,” he said.
The economists also heard through the course of all their conversations that relationships — whether with family, friends, neighbours, customers or the broader community — are also a keystone that provides a foundation that enables adaptation.
Although reflecting upon and perhaps rediscovering one’s core story — what can be cut and what’s critical to a business or organization — will require some time, speed is also of the essence, said Roach.
“If you don’t react quickly, you’ll get bowled over and left behind,” he said.
And during the best of times — especially amid an ongoing global health crisis — people occasionally need to pause, unwind and relish their success when a milestone or a goal is reached through hard work, said Hirsch.
Winding down their presentation, the economists said an overarching theme that connected the stories is community.
“Everything we do within the community — whether it’s volunteering, whether it’s helping somebody out, whether it’s mentoring someone — those are the things that really come back and are there to help us when unwanted change comes our way,” said Roach.
All too often, society tends to emphasize the importance of the profit-motivated private sector, said Hirsch.
While an unquestionably important factor in the economic equation, he said it’s certainly not the only one. Health care, education, transportation systems and infrastructure are all vitally important as well, he said.
But the caring economy, or community, tends to get overlooked, only getting the spotlight during times of duress, he said.
“These are the things that we do naturally as human beings that are not profit-motivated,” he said, citing as some examples mentorship and volunteerism with social, athletic or arts organizations.
Looking through the pages of history, one will see the critical role community played during remarkable economic hardship such as the Great Depression and even Alberta circa 1980s, he said.
“When economic times are good, and when a lot of people are experiencing prosperity, my worry is sometimes we ignore, or we allow the fabric of our communities to weaken,” he said.
“But we find out in fact how important community is in economic crises.”