Brendon Shank

Adapting to Change: A Cautionary Tale for Communications Professionals

By: Brendon Shank | August 3, 2017 | 

adapting to change“All you can do is continue to swing.”

That’s what Ryan Howard, legendary former first baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies told a few years ago.

Today, it strikes fear into my heart.

But, before I get into it, a disclaimer: I’m a big Ryan Howard fan.

And a Phillies fan.

I live in Philadelphia and the Phillies are my adoptive baseball team.

I have fond memories of my son—then three years old—dressing up in a Ryan Howard uniform for Halloween.

But those eight words got to me.

And not in a good way.

In a different context, they have very real implications for communications professionals (though I’m certain that’s not what Howard had in mind).

It’s about what happens when you continue to do the one thing you know how to do, without adapting to change, adapting to your environment.

What Howard Meant

You see, when Howard said, “All you can do is continue to swing,” he was talking about how whether he was changing how he swung the bat after opposing teams started changing the position of their fielders when he was at the plate.

Put simply, he (and other power hitters) consistently hit to the righthand side of the baseball field, so the other team adapted and moved to the right, making it easier for them to get to the ball after he hit it.

That move to the right, now known as “the shift,” was relatively new to baseball when Ryan began his major league career.

Rather than change how he swung, he continued and just hoped for the best.

That could have cost him a shot at the Baseball Hall of Fame and maybe even some additional championships, according to an exhaustive but interesting (if you’re a baseball nerd) statistical analysis on FiveThirtyEight.

One of Howard’s contemporaries makes the case for changing things up.

David Ortiz was the only hitter who saw the shift more than Howard, but he adapted his swing, turned it into an advantage, and made himself more competitive.

Adapting to Change: What it Means for Communications Professionals

For communications pros, it should be easy to identify with the parable of Howard and Ortiz.

One player sticks to the same formula for success, despite dwindling returns on investment.

Another recognizes change in the environment and not only overcomes it, but turns it into a competitive advantage.

Even if we’re the ones changing the game, the game will adapt.

And it’s up to us to continually recognize those adaptations and change the game again.

Using the same swing that got us to the big leagues won’t get us to the hall of fame.

So if we’re doing communications, we have to watch how the game changes and find the new path forward—and lead others there, too.

In your case, maybe it’s native content and owned media.

For someone else, it could be a new focus on influencer relations.

Perhaps it’s a new approach to high-value content, or an evidence-based approach to authentic community building and partnerships.

Adapting to Change: Tips for Changing Your Swing

Just like in baseball, adapting to change is easier to talk about than to actually do.

Here are seven steps to make it easier:

  • Acknowledge the shift. This is the hardest part. Behavioral inertia is real. In the short run, it’s often easier to deny there’s been a change.
  • Understand it. Once you’ve noticed a change, seek to understand it. What’s motivating it? Is this an isolated change or a systemic shift?
  • Navigate it. Figure out your goal for adapting to change. Is it just to mitigate the damage? Or to exploit it for even more return-on-investment? Sometimes, shifts are new opportunities that look like threats.
  • Change things up. Do something. Anything. It’s possible your first attempt to adapt won’t be successful, but it can only help strengthen your final adaptation. And waiting for the perfect solution is the same thing as doing nothing.
  • Acknowledge failures. Adapting to change often leads to failure, but trying to pass it off as success only makes true success harder. If your adaptation doesn’t meet your goals, figure out why and adapt differently.
  • Institutionalize success. Once you’ve found a successful adaptation, stick with it and institutionalize it. Make it part of your standard operating procedures and training.
  • “Wash, rinse, repeat. There are cycles within cycles in communications, so even success isn’t enough. Once you’ve adapted and succeeded, it’s time to be on the lookout for the next shift.

Changing things up in the face of a shift can lead to real success.

We work in an industry where the shifts and adaptations are continual, which is what makes it interesting, even fun.

And if we adapt and lead enough, we’ll force others to adapt to us.

About Brendon Shank

Brendon Shank is vice president / account director at Domus, Inc., an industry-leading marketing communications services and solutions agency. He has more than 20 years of experience in communications, including the healthcare, nonprofit, and technology sectors. He is the 2017 chair of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) Health Academy.

  • Such good reminders.

    Here, are Spin Sucks, we can’t stress enough the importance of adapting, of being prepared for the future by learning new skills, learning how to use data to show business results, learning, learning, and more learning.

    There is no way around it. If you want to have a successful career and business in a world of AI, you need to keep learning and challenging yourself.

    Thank you, Brendon!

    • bshank

      Always a pleasure to work with such great collaborators!

      And you lead up to another good point: good leaders can explain to their teams WHY things are getting changed by showing how the outside world is changing and what it means for day-to-day life.

  • So much yes to this!! I think part of why adapting is so hard is we get stuck in a box of thinking this is the way things are done. My rule of thumb is whenever I find myself reflexively saying, “well, that’s just the way it is,” I need to shake something up.

    I love the action steps you provide because it won’t just happen naturally, it needs to be a focus, self-aware, and proactive process. Every. Single. Day.

    • Debbie Johnson

      I can’t stand it when someone says “we’ve always done it that way.” I’m mindful of it so I don’t say or do it myself.

      • bshank

        I KNOW! I’m with you, Debbie.

        I’ve found that there are two responses that people use: “we’ve tried THAT before” and “we’ve always done it this way.” Neither are good reasons for not shaking things up when the situation demands it.

        • Debbie Johnson

          I got myself out of that habit by allowing myself to be ok with the fact that I don’t know how to do everything. I can either learn a new skill or I can hire someone to help me. But you have to embrace change.

  • I know this isn’t the point of your article, but I kind of love that your son went as Ryan Howard for Halloween. That is the sweetest thing ever.

    • bshank

      Thanks! He was born at a good time for Phillies baseball.

      In the Philliest thing ever, there’s literally a picture of three-year-old Nate eating a cheesteak in his Ryan Howard uniform. He turns nine this month.

  • This is such a good reminder, and I think understanding “the shift” and adapting to it is the hallmark of a sound strategy. PR is an industry that needs to be in flux. Always. Changing product offerings, behaviour, reading habits, technology, channel offerings… all these warrant a shift or a change in how/where we are swinging. This has me thinking on so many different levels. Great post.

    • bshank

      Thanks, Mike! Glad it got you thinking!

  • Debbie Johnson

    I am a huge baseball fan, so I love the analogy. Ryan Howard is from St. Louis, where I live, so I like that, too.

    I’ve made adapting to change the focus of my professional development goals this year. I want to evolve and add to my skills, so I can not only stay relevant, but also so I can expand my career opportunities.

    • bshank

      Awesome! I hope you’ll let us know about the adaptations you’re making. Adaptability is a skill unto its own.

      • Debbie Johnson

        I would like to join a PR firm in the next few years. My background is in crisis and media relations. I’m focused on developing my marketing, business and social media skills. I currently work for a politician. I’d love to take that experience and join a firm’s public affairs team at some point.

  • Dawn Buford

    Change IS good! (Especially when it comes to career success and baseball offense.) People have a hard time with the change-up (see what I did there?!) because they’re comfortable with what they know and are afraid to fail. Don’t be afraid of change! Try a new approach and see what happens.

    • bshank

      Totally agree — your comment is a pep talk we can ALL use. Thanks!