Making Adaptability a Habit
We are living in an age of unprecedented rates of change. We’re well versed in narratives about shifts in landscape, industry, market needs, and redundant strategies. However, familiarity with the challenge does not necessarily create a solution. What do we have to do as leaders to navigate these waters? What skills do we require to keep our organisations relevant and successful in the 21st century? There are mindsets, tools and practices that you can use for yourself and in the development of others to make adaptability and agility a habit.
In my consulting and executive education practice, I consistently see three barriers to adaptability, no matter the size or industry of the company. First, the organisational culture punishes failure, or at least attaches a strong stigma to failure. As a result, the priority is for perfection and predictability. Generally, new practices, processes, products or services that we create are but tiny, incremental adjustments or improvements to what already exists. Such an enterprise rarely develops the sort of game changing, supernova innovations that create exponential rewards and disrupts its industry. So the first area to work on is the organisation’s attitude toward adaptability. After all, you can be error-free or your can be agile; you can’t be both.
Second, a huge reason that companies struggle to adapt is that their people don’t have clarity about what the change is supposed to look like. Too many of us are familiar with the scenario:
Boss: After the board meeting, we’ve all received a memo that we need to encourage agility and innovation.
Put-upon employee: OK. What should I be doing?
Boss: What do you mean?
Put-upon employee: What do I need to do that’s different to what I’m doing now that would demonstrate that I’m being agile and innovative?
Boss: You’ll work it out. You know – explore!
Since routines and habits are so difficult to disrupt at the best of times, it is incumbent on leaders not only to set direction but to suggest, not dictate, a vision for what a new direction could resemble, how it might impact the team’s day-to-day, and what behaviours are encouraged.
Third, I have found it immensely helpful to suggest lenses through which leaders and their teams can practice adaptability and innovation with a little more focus. For example, perhaps a team could run a 24-hour hackathon where they create experiments and then prototypes of innovations that they wish to develop. That activity automatically moves the organisational needle forward in terms of enhancing its creative capacity. Or a department could conduct some interviews with customers, suppliers and partners about what emerging trends they’re seeing in the marketplace. This exercise would by definition break that team out of its internal perspective. How many times do we try to adapt to a new world, but we only discuss the potential responses amongst a small set of colleagues? Yet at the same time, we decry that we keep coming up with the same solutions to any problem! It’s probably because we’re drawing from a toolkit that rarely refreshes.
Change usually feels like a difficult, drawn-out, top-down, military campaign instead of an organic, market-driven, exciting prospect. It can be the latter, but we have to question some of our long-held management paradigms about leading change that have fostered some our collective disabilities.
- Adam Kingl, www.adamkingl.com, is the author of Next Generation Leadership (www.nextgenerationleadershipbook.com) and is a keynote speaker, educator and advisor. Adam was previously the Regional Managing Director, Europe, for Duke Corporate Education – Duke University, and the Executive Director of Thought Leadership and Learning Solutions at London Business School. He is a writer, keynote speaker, educator and advisor.
*First published in Michael Page and Future Talent Group, Adapting is Thriving in a Post-Pandemic World, 2020, p.9