The thinking behind what we do

Adaptation: Remaining relevant and thriving in a changing world

“Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it coming”
— David Bowie

With a career spanning over 40 years, few artists have had such a lasting impact as David Bowie. His work was subversive and transformative. He dictated trends as much as he altered his style to fit, and his influence on fashion and culture continues today. Victoria and Albert Museum’s David Bowie is exhibition in 2013 was the most successful in the museum’s history. The exhibition explored Bowie’s creative processes as a brand innovator and cultural icon, tracing his shifting style and sustained reinvention across five decades. (And it’s coming soon to Australia at

Organisations wishing to remain relevant and innovative could certainly look to Bowie for inspiration. Brand Bowie had an unnerving ability to adapt and transform and, as a result, he remained relevant and flourished. He is an example of how great businesses understand the difference between what should remain the same and what should be open to change.

For organisations to remain relevant and thrive in our changing world, they first need to understand who they are why they exist. They then need to adapt regularly to the changing needs of their audiences or consumers. This is strategic thinking in design.

Some of the bravest things we have done is stop at that moment and say this is good, but not great
— Jonathan Ive

Apple has been a great example of brand bravery and pushing boundaries. Unfortunately, many social and cultural organisations in Australia tend to be less brave than their American or European counterparts. We tend to see organisations, especially cultural organisations, stuck in a branding rut for years. For example, we would argue that it is almost impossible to distinguish between Australian classical music companies and their unique offers. The brands are messy, their websites are old and their brochure-ware consists of the ubiquitous musician leaping with instrument in hand. Does it resonate with audiences? Does it sell tickets? Does it transform your audience? All wish to ‘inspire’ without much thought as to their purpose and what that means to an audience. They have a habit of doing the same things over and over.

Why is this an issue for social and cultural organisations? There are two main reasons.

1. Changes in technology and audiences

According to The Future Laboratory, we are seeing a change in values and a shift in our identities as technology is consumed at an accelerated rate and affects our sense of self. This means organisations need to help audiences better perceive and understand their place in daily life and culture as a whole.

The internet has also given us a greater opportunity to watch trends grow and evolve. What’s hot today might not be hot tomorrow. People forget that before Facebook everyone used MySpace, which disappeared into the technology mire only a few years ago.

Organisations that don’t recognise trends or have their finger on the pulse won’t stay relevant for very long. So why do we see companies ‘resting on their branding laurels’ and refusing to change?

2. Changes in competition

Competition is emerging more and more from non-traditional places and for a cultural institution it’s not just other cultural institutions they should be worrying about–any place that entertains and attracts our attention is a competitor. Why take your family to a museum or gallery when you can have a cheap day out at Bunnings or Ikea?

Likewise, large social enterprises and NGOs are finding competition in smaller, more nimble companies that can quickly create issue-based websites to rally new audiences. They are vying for the same attention and money that used to automatically go to larger, more established enterprises and charities. There is also an increase in what’s been called ‘charity fatigue’; just look at how we are being harassed daily by a variety of charities on the street. How can our consumers and audiences determine what is most worthy of their attention and their dollar?

Bowie had an uncanny grasp of what it means to evolve and adapt; so does the indomitable Apple. Apple continues to have a strong vision and core values, but it adapts to its environment accordingly.

While social and culturally-minded organisations are resource poor, they tend to waste money and time looking for solutions in a logo ‘refresh’ or a new website without a deep understanding of their positioning in the world. Or they just wait for audiences to come, because that’s what they have always done.

According to Sydney Finkelstein’s book, ‘Why Smart Executives Fail’, failure is not a result of unforeseeable events or unmotivated directors; it’s often simply a breakdown in strategic thinking and the absence of a culture of deep analysis. In other words, organisations that refuse to look closely at themselves and are resistant to innovation and change are being swept aside by competitors who can recognise new ideas and have a vision for success.

It’s always good to remind ourselves of the Italian typewriter company Olivetti, which remained a mechanical typewriter business to the bitter end, deciding not to invest any further in ‘computer mainframes’.

We need to take a leaf out of Bowie’s book: being adaptable future-proofs an organisation. The first step is always to rethink the vision or mission to create an effective context for a forward-looking organisation: Why do we exist? Where are we? Where do we want to be? How do we get there? As Tupac Shakur once prophesied: ‘You either evolve or you disappear.’

suzanne boccalatte