Reconciling Consistency with Adaptation: In Antarctica, on a Cruise Ship or in Your Business

I’m back from a twenty day cruise on the Holland America Line’s Rotterdam (HAL) where my family sailed by Antarctic glaciers, explorer’s outposts and penguin colonies. Besides the hazardous grandeurs deftly navigated by our ice pilot, I saw a fascinating contradiction. The crew and staff of HAL worked nonstop to create a consistent onboard experience while the Antarctic researchers we saw spent all their time adapting to survive as they studied how the climate, nature and animals themselves are adapting. In watching this, it occurred to me how often we entrepreneurs struggle with these same conflicting forces of the need for consistency vs. the need to adapt.

First let’s look at Antarctica versus our ship. Despite its inhospitable and dangerous climate, Antarctica has drawn explorers, heroes and fools to its shores for centuries. Ernest Shackleton, the most famous, survived over 130 days under a rowboat eating blubber ultimately only to earn a $20,000 fee for the film rights. After Shackleton, thousands of explorers have adapted their lives, dreams, and studies to explore and learn about Antarctica. Their success demonstrates the very human spirit to innovate and adapt as much to survive and learn.

Compare this to the centuries old tradition-bound Holland America Cruise Lines whose consistency and standardization are keys to their success. As the oldest premium brand, HAL appeals mostly to the 60+ market offering a consistent experience delivered over seventeen ships. From the centralization of decision and policy making to the tight allocation of human resources, HAL runs cost centers with legendary attention to detail and tradition. My only big beef is the lack of contemporary music or other progressive entertainment for the still-rocking crowd. Still it seemed bizarre to watch the ship’s Hotel Manager chastise our waiter for a crooked place setting while we passed the spot where another cruise ship sank last month!

So as an entrepreneur, how do you reconciling consistency with the need to adapt? Unlike the explorers or the cruise ships, you really don’t have the luxury of choosing one.

One of my close colleagues, and a national manufacturing expert, Becky Morgan , helped me with this. She, along with Carmella Calta, CEO of multiple process-driven companies, pointed out that without first creating consistency in your business, progress cannot be made let alone innovation.

For both consistency and innovation to work, my colleagues recommended that autonomous employees must take responsibility for creating and embracing process. Only with clear standards in place, can innovation turn into practical results. The challenge of a company adapting to progressive innovation and demonstrating “out of the box thinking” relates more to business strategy. To create strategic change, leaders of organizations must define themselves as innovative by allowing “out of the box thinking”. Most companies don’t gamble on their proven successes despite indications that their marketplace is moving and changing. As Becky says, “If you don’t move with your customer base and change your business strategy your operations strategy and what you measure in the form of standardization won’t change either.”

In Shackleton’s case, his ability to adapt and survive led him on to be refinanced for future expeditions to both Antarctica and elsewhere in the world.

And Holland America has the choice of reinforcing its traditional appeal to its aging customer base or innovating more to appeal to its younger, non-retired clientele like me. Only time will tell which is the right bet as with increasing life spans and sellout cruise ships, Holland’s core market shows no signs of declining.

Here are some key guidelines for managing your way to consistency and adaptation.

  1. Don’t use innovation or anything else as an excuse not to create consistency and standardization.
  2. Empower your employees throughout your firm to create better ways to get work done and hold them responsible for results.
  3. Don’t use standardization and consistency as an excuse for not creating a clear business strategy that recognizes shifts in your marketplace and their preferences.

What does this mean for your business?

Articles by Birol Growth Consulting are © copyrighted and all rights are reserved. However, articles may be reprinted with prior written consent if attribution is included as follows:

© Copyrighted by Andrew J. Birol, President of Birol Growth Consulting, who helps owners grow their businesses by growing their Best and Highest Use ®. Andy can be reached at (412) 973-2080, by email at, or on the web at

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