It’s the end of the world as we know it (and I feel fine)

I recently read an article that listed retail companies that had fallen victim to the changes occurring in their sector. As the list went on a thought occurred to me. The similarities between the retail and the disability sectors are remarkable. Both industries are facing the most significant changes to their environment that they have encountered in their existence. Some organisations have embraced this and are flourishing, while others are suffering or simpering away. So what are the common elements? It all comes down to how they embrace and manage change. For the organisations on the list I read, I suspect their approach went something like this…

Harvey Smith was standing by his posh kitchen bench gently stroking a shiny silver key between his fingers.  The key, he once hoped, would unlock his secret weapon – a very large, expensive, shiny, (kind of) new facility.  He once was convinced that it would save his empire from this online scourge that was changing his beloved retail industry.

The key now unlocked a vacant building.

He first noticed the change around five years ago, when his “bottom line” started to look like it had been on an extreme diet. For him, this was the first indication of the digitally driven tidal wave of change that would inundate his empire. In reality, the change started more than ten years before. Harvey just missed it.

As time marched forward, the rate of change accelerated. Harvey attempted to combat it by yelling at anyone who could not run away fast enough. Yet it did not stop. He pleaded that the change would be a disaster for the whole country. However, the truth was, the change was only really bad for Harvey and his business-as-usual bottom line.

Most people in society, many of whom were once Harvey’s customers, wanted change. They embraced anything that offered them more choice, more convenience, and more flexibility. They didn’t particularly care who was behind it, or who owned the companies leading it.

 

The above story is, of course, about the Australian retail industry and its slowness to react to the online marketplace. Yet the parallels with the disability sector are remarkable. Both sectors need to respond to what their customers want. In a world of increasing competition, the customer has a power the likes of which they have never experienced. Or, as the NDIS terms it, they have "Choice and Control."

If Harvey had responded more positively when he first noticed the change, he might have had the chance to adapt and become even more successful in the new world. However, he spent next to no time trying to understand the change, to learn about what was driving it or find a way to adapt. Instead, he dusted off old systems with a polish, and then tried to convince everyone that these shiny new things were good.

They were not good. They were same as the old things, and people could see straight through it. Again – there are exact parallels within the NDIS. Successful organisations will need to learn, engage and adapt pretty much everything they do in order to survive.

The main lesson the NDIS world should take from the retail sector is this– retail was, in general, too slow to respond to the new online marketplace. They falsely believed that customers would be loyal to them because they had been a household name for 80+ years. Many of their attempts to adapt were nothing more than a new coat of paint to an ageing shop front. As a result, we are currently seeing many foundation members and new entrants to the retail sector faltering. Competitive forces do not discriminate – whether they are an 80-year-old public company or a new boutique brand – the requirements, as dictated by the customers, are the same for everyone. Provide customers what they want or fade into obscurity.

For those of you reading who are of a similar vintage, you will no doubt recognise the title as a reference to the brilliant song by one of my all-time favourite bands – R.E.M. The song title is relevant to both the disability and retail sectors. It IS the end of the old world as we know it. Hopefully, this is not news to anyone by now. However, the title is also very true to all those people with disabilities, their families, carers, advocates, and friends. It is the end of the world as they know it – and they feel mighty fine indeed.