September 20, 2013

Building the adaptive core of your organisation

A discourse that has been gaining prominence in business nowadays is around adaptive and resilient organisations.  Some of the world's leading business thinkers like Prof Gary Hamel are making the case for adaptive capacity as being critical for businesses today.  In this HBR article the authors speak of Adaptive Advantage as the new competitive edge.   Similarly, resilience has been a prominent theme, especially in light of the increasingly turbulent context organisations face nowadays.

Adaptive capacity and resilience are often seen as the same thing,  I'm not sure I fully agree, but the two concepts certainly are linked.  To me adaptation involves change, evolution and transformation whereas resilience (according to most definitions) is about the ability to "bounce back" from a setback or disturbance - to return to a state similar to the one before the disturbance with minimal loss of effectiveness.

A main reason why I prefer to talk about adaptive capacity rather than resilience is that I believe some systems are "too" resilient.  For example, many attempts to disrupt or change toxic cultures in organisations fail due to the resilience of that culture.  Successful organisations seem to have the wisdom to know when they need to adapt or transform vs be resilient.

So how do you build adaptive capacity?

I liken adaptive capacity in organisations and individuals to the core muscles of an athlete.  For example, core strength is key to the agility required for athletes like surfers to enable them to ride any wave that comes at them.  The core is made up of several muscle groups including the pelvic floor, lower abdominals, and lower back muscles.  For agility, these muscles need to be both strong and flexible.  It's important to note that your core is an internal muscular structure, you can temporarily strap on braces or belts for external support, but while it does support, at best it's a kind of scaffolding:  the moment you remove it, if you have no core strength of your own, you will collapse.  Similarly, adaptive capacity needs to be enabled in your organisation, it cannot be outsourced to consultants.

So how does one enable the adaptive core of an organisation?

I don't have all the answers, but I believe that just like your body's core is made up of several muscle groups, so an organisation's (and individual's) adaptive core is made up of several things.  One of the most important of these is a clear sense of purpose, meaning, and core values (real espoused values, not the ones up on the wall).  It is here, in the stories of who we are, why we exist, what we value and what we know that people from all levels of the organisation can find a sense of meaning and purpose in their work.  This narrative also creates a sense of continuity, even in the midst of disruptive change or adaptation.  It serves as the glue binding the various parts of the organisation together, enabling collaborative and co-ordinated "movement" into a coherent direction.

Something else that forms part of an organisation's adaptive core is learning agility, which is defined as the ability and willingness to learn from experience, and then apply that learning later when facing new or novel situations.  Learning Agility becomes particularly important during transitions from the known to the unknown.  The Korn/Ferry Institute writes: "When you face a novel, unfamiliar situation, your existing routines and behaviors may be inadequate. Learning Agility gives you the flexibility to learn new ways of coping with unforeseen problems and opportunities. Those who are highly learning agile gain their lessons closer to the event or interaction itself. Not because they are smarter (from an IQ sense), but because they have amassed more learnings from past experiences which helps them figure out what to do when they don’t know what to do."

Adaptive organisations therefore need to have a core value that encourages learning and experimentation across the entire organisation, which implies that valuing learning becomes more important than fearing failure.  Building a culture where safe-to-fail experimentation is not only tolerated but encouraged is a critical part of building an adaptive organisation.

An understanding and appreciation of Complex Adaptive Systems is another key to building adaptive capacity.  I believe that complexity has been framed as "a problem to solve" for too long; adaptive organisations view complexity as something to harness for competitive advantage, not ignored, avoided or "managed away".

I would love to hear your thoughts on the topics of adaptive capacity, resilience, and continuity and how you see the interplay between them?


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