Ageing gracefully?…What can organisations learn from the wine industry about longevity?

Sometimes the answers to life’s big questions come to me when I am in a beautiful quiet location. This year it was a place called Rioja in Spain. It’s rolling hills, seven valleys, and wineries are steeped in history.

The question I’d been asking myself was one that many business leaders are also pondering. How the heck do we get through this “Brexit-ness” and cope with the ambiguity going on in the markets right now? The challenging conditions we currently face are broad: possible rise in interest rates, inflation, speed of technological advancement, ageing workforces meeting millennial expectations, innovation, competition – the list goes on.

Sitting on my bench in Haro, the central Riojan town, I realised these are conditions that have affected the wine industry for years. The “Barrio de la Estación” (the small Station Quarter) in Haro has the largest number of Centennial wineries in the world. Where in the UK can you find a square mile with so many 100 year old organisations? Adapting and reinventing is what the wine industry has done successfully for centuries. So what are the lessons to help organisations age so gracefully?

As an advocate for adapting to change, us Chameleons need to understand that constant change, if not handled with care, can be too stressful. There is a place for standing still, doing nothing and just listening.

What makes the top wines of Rioja so celebrated is that they nurture tradition yet create the future. Winemakers are trialling new techniques whilst working hard to keep the wooden vats oiled. “We are adapting to changes in climate and trying new techniques – our legacy of quality and consistency is sustained thanks to the local wine control board”, Consejo Regulador DOCa Rioja.

“The top wines of Rioja represent tradition yet embrace the future.”

Of course, all this adapting to change comes at a price in organisations – when there is alot of ambiguity people fidget and increased stress has an effect on productivity, creative problem-solving, innovation, energy and we risk losing our best people. If we’re not careful, our organisations can get stuck focussing on all the challenges instead of leaving some of the journey to nature. We sometimes just need to sit with the ambiguity a while instead of running to a competitor where we think the grass might be greener.

So how can we break this cycle and adapt in a healthy and sustainable way?

The wine industry of Rioja may have an answer. The area has been exporting wine since the late 13th Century AD and Haro is particularly proud of its long and varied winemaking traditions. The town is an open-air museum with bronze and stone statues depicting traditional trades at almost every corner; and contemporary sculptures relating to wine are seen at every roundabout.

Adapting to change has been necessary here, over the years. Both environmental and human factors have shaken the vineyards; but yet the wines still represent a rich tradition.  For example: For it’s 75th anniversary vintage, La Rioja Alta has, for the first time, used a choice of Tempranillo grapes, that comprise the main part of the blend (80%) and Garnacha grapes from La Pedriza. This high-risk decision, to blend using grapes from very poor soils completely covered with boulders, resulted in grapes very rich in aromas with a pleasant, elegant structure, giving the wine a unique character. Bingo!

Whilst innovating, La Rioja Alta didn’t lose sight of its’ tried and tested practices. The same care and patience was poured into every bottle. Winemakers can still confidently say “When you receive a bottle of Rioja at your table……we have done the aging for you!”

My conclusion – perhaps we don’t always need to totally reinvent the wheel in order to stay ahead. Perhaps keeping a toe in the past is the answer. Perhaps looking at what is right under our feet is the answer!

So, how does ‘keeping a toe in the past’ relate to our organisations?

I believe it’s about acknowledging and appreciating our unique history – how we got to where we are today. Especially the values and behaviours that have served us well. When we work out what got us here it helps us decide how, and to what extent, we need to change. We can then focus our energy efficiently and effectively.

Recently, one of our clients spent two days analysing what great bits of the company’s heritage it wanted to preserve before starting a culture change programme. They went offsite to get the space, timeout & patience that quality culture change requires.

Remember, our “terroir” under our feet might be the right place to prepare the fertile ground for risk taking and growth. It may be exactly what helps your organisation age gracefully.

PS. I loved Rioja so much that we are featuring some of the regions top wines in our MBTI & Wine tasting™ tasting events in the run up to the festive season. Don’t forget to book early!

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