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Three keys to becoming an adaptable business

Charles Darwin is often misquoted as saying the strongest species survive. What he actually said was, "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one more responsive to change."

If the first statement were true, dinosaurs would still be roaming the earth today. Instead, they died off and yet the tiny mosquito remains. Why? Because it was adaptable.

For any business to truly stand the test of time, adaptability is absolutely critical.

Since co-founding RE/MAX, the world's leading real estate franchise, with my wife Gail in 1973, we’ve been doing business throughout nine presidential administrations. With each one, we’ve had new obstacles to navigate and challenges to overcome. During that time, we’ve seen eight recessions, the savings-and-loan crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic and so much more.

The fact is, every business in the world is undergoing transition right now.

When we started out, a typical contract was one page. But the world has become far more complex. Mortgages and inspections are tougher, and everything is much more regulated. Now, contracts easily run 40 to 50 pages long. So we’ve had to adapt how our business operates.

Being in business as long as I have, I’ve seen firsthand the businesses that didn’t adapt; most are no longer in business. These were all good businesses with good leaders who had good intentions. Some may have even been willing to adapt, but they either weren’t adequately prepared or didn’t make the necessary difficult decisions in a timely fashion.

There’s an old saying that goes, "You can’t do today’s business with yesterday’s methods and expect to be in business tomorrow." The fact is, every business in the world is undergoing transition right now, and whether because of technology, systems or AI, everyone is changing and the pace is accelerating. Everywhere you turn, it’s a tsunami of change and there’s no stopping it. But don’t be afraid of it.

Never stop learning

People often ask my advice for navigating change as a business leader, and my answer is simple: be a lifelong learner. Study your business and continue a lifetime of study. Take courses, get certifications, attend conferences and seminars and never stop learning.

Study your business and continue a lifetime of study.

When we first started our RE/MAX conventions, we had 26 attendees. As we began to grow, I started to attend other large conventions outside the real estate industry, such as Mary Kay and Amway, to get ideas about how we could improve our events.

How do they administer their awards? How do they assemble their panels? I met with their executives and took copious notes. Our conventions of 20,000 attendees looked very different to our first one. We had to learn in order to adapt.

Always be curious

Curiosity is key. You should always be asking yourself, "How can I make my business better?" It’s important to benchmark yourself against your competitors. Compare your business to theirs. What do they do better? How can you improve?

Kaizen is the Japanese word for continuous improvement. It happens in small, incremental steps. One hundred percent improvement comes from 100 people making a one percent improvement. Everyone in the company contributes to embracing and making change.

Listen to your employees

Never let the ivory tower run the company.

Instead, get out into the field and see what your employees are doing. After all, they are the ones who know what’s going on, so listen to them.

McDonald’s is a great example of a business that has listened to the needs of its employees and customers, and thus has adapted very well. The hamburger chain never offered a fish sandwich until a Catholic franchise owner, Lou Groen, made the suggestion in 1963 when he was losing sales each week because the largely Catholic population in Cincinnati didn’t eat meat on Fridays.

The Big Mac was created to compete with Bob’s Big Boy. One franchise owner had a store in front of a construction site for six months. At the time, McDonald’s didn’t open its doors until 11am. But construction workers were banging on the door at 8am for breakfast. So he violated the rules, opened his store earlier and came up with the Sausage McMuffin and served them coffee too.

Stay curious, listen to your employees and never stop learning.

Regulators said he couldn’t do that. But he said, "Look, my volume has gone up over 30 percent!" McDonald’s was smart enough to realize it was a great idea and adopt it. As we know, breakfast is now a core part of its business in many of its locations around the world.

Eli Broad wrote about embracing "unreasonable thinking." It can be dangerous to be too reasonable because it shifts all your focus to figuring out why something new can’t be done. Instead, those who embrace unreasonable thinking are able to come up with innovations that ultimately lead to success.

Change can be difficult and scary at times, but it’s much scarier for your company to stay stuck in the mud than it is to adapt to the ever-changing landscape of society. Stay curious, listen to your employees and never stop learning. And when change comes, as it inevitably will, you’ll be ready.

Dave Liniger is the Co-Founder of RE/MAX, the Denver-based global real estate franchise that he began with his wife, Gail, in 1973. RE/MAX is the leading franchisor of real estate offices throughout the world and has expanded to more than 8,000 offices in more than 110 countries, with 140,000-plus sales agents. Liniger is internationally renowned for his real estate and franchising expertise and is widely credited with improving conditions for real estate agents.

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