Making adaptability a habit

Written by
Adam Kingl, author, keynote speaker and advisor

06 Jul 2020

06 Jul 2020 • by Adam Kingl, author, keynote speaker and advisor

Mindsets, tools and practices are on hand to help us instil agility and adaptability into everything that we do, writes Adam Kingl.

We are living in an age of exponential change, but while we’re well versed in narratives about shifts in landscape, industry, market needs and redundant strategies, 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 we can use for ourselves, and in the development of others, to make adaptability and agility a habit.

Three barriers to adaptability

In my consulting and executive education practice, I consistently see three barriers to adaptability, no matter the size or industry of the company.

1. 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 disrupt its industry. So, the first area to work on is your organisation’s attitude towards adaptability. You can be error-free or you can be agile; you can’t be both.

2. People don’t have clarity about what change is supposed to look like; a huge reason that companies struggle to adapt. 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 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 day-to-day work, and what behaviours are encouraged.

3. People don’t have a chance to practise adaptability.

I have found it immensely helpful to suggest lenses through which leaders and their teams can practise adaptability and innovation with a little more focus. For example, 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.

Similarly, a department could conduct interviews with customers, suppliers, and partners about 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 only discuss the potential responses among a small set of colleagues? Yet, 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 collective disabilities.

Adam Kingl is the author of Next Generation Leadership, and a keynote speaker, educator and advisor. He 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.

This article is from ‘Adapting is thriving’ – our exclusive e-book produced in partnership with Michael Page. To download the full e-book, which features insights from leading thinkers in the employment space on the post-pandemic workplace, click here.