May 31, 2018

Enabling adaptive space

I had the privilege this week to co-facilitate an Adaptive Space workshop with Prof Mary Uhl-Bien at a local business school. I’ve long been intrigued by her work, so it was really good to see it applied practically. As always, I’m left with a need to make sense of where it fits into other complexity work I do. So this post is me thinking out loud.

Mary’s work combines ideas from complexity and leadership. More recently her focus has been on understanding the adaptive process that describes how organisations function as complex adaptive systems. In order to thrive in complex and uncertain contexts organisations need to become more adaptive, however most describe this as a need for innovation. Mary’s research shows that a focus on increasing innovation may be counter productive, reason being that not all individuals are (or have to be) innovative. However in order to be future fit, all individuals have to be able to adapt (and most people already are). Increased adaptive capacity in the workforce plus the ability to enable adaptive space create the conditions for increased innovation to emerge at the organisational level.

To understand the concept of adaptive space, it is helpful to refer to the continuous learning dynamic (blue arrow) and liminal domain between complicated and complex in Cynefin. This dynamic represents a continuous flow between complexity where we can explore, experiment and discover emergent novelty and complicated where we can operationalise and exploit what we’ve discovered. The key to growth and sustainability is to keep this dynamic going so that the organisation doesn’t become inflexible or complacent.

Mary’s theory describes this same tension.  It is a fractal dynamic that can exist in our own minds when confronted with a choice between novelty and our habits; in teams; in organisations and in society.  In organisations it is expressed as a tension between exploration (the need to innovate in what she calls the entrepreneurial system) and exploitation (the need to produce in the operational system). Often this dynamic is undermined when leaders under pressure do what they were taught to do: bring stability and mitigate conflict through ordered responses that destroy this tension. Such ordered responses lead to a suppression of the entrepreneurial system and eventually to organisations that are unable to adapt or innovate. In the longer term, such a bias towards stability and maximising current results compromises the organisations future viability.

Mary’s research shows future viability depends on the adaptive outcomes that are realised when leaders are able to engage this tension “by enabling “adaptive space” that generates adaptability in the interface between the competing demands of exploration (i.e., entrepreneurial activity) and exploitation (i.e., operational core) Adaptive space engages the tension (e.g., conflicting) created by these pressures and uses integration mechanisms (e.g., connecting) to enable emergence of adaptive responses (e.g., knowledge, innovation, learning) that can be implemented into the operating core in the form of new adaptive order (i.e., new configuration of resources and operating routines.” (From Leadership for organizational adaptability: A theoretical synthesis and integrative frameworkUhl-Bien & Arena, 2018)

Pressure and crisis tend to open up adaptive space naturally – I often hear stories of how cross-silo collaboration happens spontaneously when a crisis occurs.   The problem is our natural tendency to impose order when under pressure.   Organisations that have healthy adaptive processes respond from a complex paradigm and enable adaptive space where the tension between exploration and exploitation is productive even in the midst of external and internal pressures.

A key enabler for adaptive outcomes is operational leadership that enables flexibility in the operational system so that ii is able to integrate novelty in ways that are transformative. This reminds me of Paul Cilliers’ assertion that “part of the vitality of a system lies in its ability to transform hierarchies. Although hierarchies are necessary in order to generate frameworks of meaning in the system, they cannot remain unchanged. As the context changes, so must the hierarchies. Some hierarchies may be more long-lived than others, but it is important to perceive of hierarchies as transformable entities. “

Adaptive space can be created in workshop contexts through complex facilitation techniques than enable heterogeneous groups to engage tension creatively through conflicting (diverging) and connecting (converging) processes.  On an organisational level, adaptive space depends on networks and diffferent kinds of leadership: Enabling Leadership that create spaces where conflicting (engaging the tensions) and connecting (emerging new adaptive outcomes from those tensions) can take place. Problem is that many leaders who do this naturally are not seen or recognised by the system. Rob Cross used to refer to these kind of people are boundary spanners in the social network. They are able to foster connections across organisational boundaries, but often because of this they don’t “fit the profile” of leader that typically gets rewarded for results.

Organisations seeking to become more adaptive and responsive need to think carefully about the kind of leadership behaviour that gets rewarded. Future viability does not depend on leaders who only focus on today’s results.   They need entrepreneurial leaders able to explore and experiment; enabling leaders who are able to create adaptive space and the networks required to support it; and operational leaders who are adaptive enough to ensure that the operational system is able to remain flexible.

I am still reflecting on all of this and how I might apply the thinking. I do find it interesting as a lens for typical Agile processes like Scrum.  Scrum with it’s linear iterations and continuous learning dynamic can be seen a transitionary method across the liminal space between complex and complicated systems. I wonder if the more successful Agile transformations have Scrum Masters and Product Owners with a natural ability to enable adaptive space i.e. they enable effective flow between the self-organising Agile teams and the formal hierarchy?

There are definite synergies here to the work of Harold Jarche and Glenda Eoyang as well, especially when it comes to practically applying the work and enabling leaders to engage these tensions, emerge connections and and create the networks required.

4 comments on “Enabling adaptive space”

  1. Hi Sonja,
    Great blog. The work of Uhl-Bien, Arena and others in this area is brilliant and there much that organisaitons can learn. But it's difficult to apply in practice I think, hence the need for reflection. You might be interested in this blog I wrote (, which isn't to the same standard as your I am afraid but does reflect the things I have been doing to 'enable and adaptive space' before I new what an adaptive space was or anything about complexity, systems thinking and all the rest.

    I look forward to reading about what conclusions you come to after your reflection.



    1. Hi John, I enjoyed your post. I think such an emergent route to agility is much more sustainable than the typical outside-in approach. Sounds like you played the role of connector and enabler in this process. A big problem with siloed organisations is exactly what you described as the two PM’s facing similar issues and not being able to connect the dots. Mary is focusing more on the practical application of her theory now, so we will hopefully see more cases/practitioner papers published in the not so distant future.

  2. Synergies with Mapping as well where people deploy according to aptitude (as now) but also attitude (pioneers - settlers - town planners). One of the weaknesses of that model in practice is the linkages between them, with a 'mechanism for internal theft' needed to pull through what's being done (as you don't want to complete people to hand things over - nothing more likely to alienate a pioneer than having to hand over his/her baby to someone else against their will).

    The boundary spanners could be that (semi?) permanent part of the structure while people shift between adjacent areas as, for example, pioneers follow a pet project into the adjacent settlers stage and use Cynefin to understand the type of approach needed now (eg moving from exploration to exploitation) so they adapt to the prevailing context.

    So, thanks for the blog, its triggered some thinking and it's something we should explore if we move forward on Mapping together (and Iwan has the KAI assessment tool that overlays on this really well)

  3. Hi Sonja,

    Great post on Mary's work - nicely explained and interested in the links to the liminal space between complex and complicated as analogous to Mary's ideas around entrepreneurial and operational systems. Wondering what contact Mary has had with Dave's work, and perhaps also Glenda's at all?

    As someone trained in HSD I see some clear links between Glenda's CDE model and the notion of hosting adaptive space (container) for enabling connections (exchanges) around novelty, new ideas, etc (differences). I also think Glenda's focus on going to where tension can be found - and working in that space with emerging patterns is again another way of exploring difference (via Interdependent Pairs, pattern spotting questions, etc) before looking to make connections and link things up...

    The whole notion of shuttling across networks via adaptive space could be one way of using HSD's Adaptive Action model to frame the 'initiate-socialise-iterate' process Mary speaks of in her work; as well as having links to Dave's work with adjacent possible space, dispositionality and 'more stories like this' (perhaps especially when looking to create sponsorship interest into the operational system for scaling ideas and developments to meet unmet needs)..?

    Just some thoughts, Gareth

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