Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

chris-grams's picture

The 12 Enemies of Adaptability

By Chris Grams on May 28, 2022

What are the barriers that prevent our organizations from being more adaptable? That is the question we posed to contributors during Sprints 1.1 and 1.2 of the CIPD/MIX Hackathon

What are the barriers that prevent our organizations from being more adaptable?

That is the question we posed to contributors during Sprints 1.1 and 1.2 of the CIPD/MIX Hackathon. In just under two weeks, our hackathon community of over 1000 HR experts and practitioners from around the world developed a list of over 120 “enemies” of adaptability—barriers that prevent our organizations from being as adaptable as it could be.

As we read through these 120 enemies of adaptability, we saw 12 core themes emerge. These are perhaps the most critical barriers that impede organizations from adapting to the changing world around them. Below we share those barriers using the comments and explanations of hackathon contributors who helped identify them.

Enemy #1: Hierarchy

Top-down, control-based hierarchical structures discourage individual initiative and reduce autonomy.

Hackathon contributor Peter Russian observes that in a today’s world, “those closest to the front line are going to be better placed to understand the increasing demands of an informed customer and need to be able to respond to those demands.” Yet the traditional hierarchical management structure found in most organizations makes it almost impossible for them to do so.

Enemy #2: Fear

Command-and-control systems lead to organizations filled with anxious employees who are hesitant to take the initiative or trust their own judgment.

Megan TeBay suggests that fear of failure is one of the root causes of organizations’ inability to adapt. Employees worry about being “run out of town for getting it wrong” while the organization as a whole isn’t tolerant of experimentation. Instead there is increased pressure in a tough financial environment to “get it right the first time,” increasing the level of fear within the organization.

Enemy #3: Decision Bias

Defensive thinking, fossilized mental models, and contentment create a bias in favor of the status quo.

Stephanie Sharma wonders if our bias toward seeing things through outdated paradigms blocks our ability to see future potential. She asks how we can eliminate “the bias of the old to truly evaluate new ideas and foster their consideration.”

Stephen Remedios sees past success as one of the greatest decision biases. “When there's no threat on the horizon, and you've just had your best quarter in a while, adapting to remain relevant in the next quarter is the last thing on anyone's agenda,” he says.

Enemy #4: Habit

Lack of proactive change often has to do with mindsets and behaviors: we must want to change, and also understand how to change.

Deb Seidman thinks “we are wired to follow routines.” She observes: “When something is working for us, we will continue to do it. The pain of doing things the same way has to be greater than the pain of change or we won't garner the energy needed to make a change (or sustain it).”

Enemy #5: Centralization

When the responsibility for making big decisions is concentrated at the top, a handful of executives favoring the status quo can thwart change.

According to Maria Padley, adaptability is halted by “senior management holding too tightly onto the reins and not delegating decision-making authority.”

Perry Timms observes that the “tighter the grip, the more opportunities slip through.” To make organizations more adaptable, we must “break the hierarchy, open up the power base, and allow more influence across the board,” Perry says.

Enemy #6: Inflexible Business Practices

Highly optimized business system are great for efficiency, but deadly for adaptability. Assets, skills, and processes become more specialized, and change becomes more incremental.

Julian Birkinshaw refers to this enemy of adaptability as “ossified management processes” and believes these inflexible processes “create simplicity and order, but also become entrenched and self-reinforcing.”

Leonardo Zangrando points out that the tendency toward overregulation “creates a status of helplessness in workers who feel less in control, increasing their inability to learn.”

Enemy #7: Rigid Structures

In many organizations, rigid unit boundaries, functional silos, and political fiefdoms hamper the rapid realignment of skills and assets.

Keith Gulliver observes that these rigid organizational structures are often evidenced by “functional silos that operate independently,” each with “small spans of control,” and with “very little movement of talent around the organization between silos.”

Enemy #8: Skills Deficit

Employees don’t have the skills, training, and coaching they need.

Kate Nicholls believes that that a lack of skills will continue to be a barrier as long as organizational learning is stuck in HR’s “learning and development” department and not integrated into the culture of the organization as a whole. “We should be helping people within our organizations to understand how they learn as professionals, to understand the value of, and make the most of, social learning opportunities and to drive their own development in line with the needs of their area and the wider business."

Enemy #9: Short-term Thinking

Compensation and incentive systems often truncate executive time horizons and skew perspectives.

According to Bruce Lewin, “addiction to core revenue streams, short term profits and short term thinking all combine to make change an ongoing challenge” to the ability of an organization to adapt.

Enemy #10: Insufficient Experimentation

Management processes typically arrive at the “one best strategy” through top-down, analytical methods, and discourage bottom-up experimentation.

Benjamin Keep says that you can spot a “non experimental culture” when upper management “views itself through the lens of operations management” instead of seeing itself more like a university. He observes “when you have confidence that you are in the solution space, your only real concern is maximizing your gains while there; when you suspect that you do not have the answers you're much more inclined to explore.”

Enemy #11: Lack of Diversity

Management systems value conformance and cohesion at the expense of diversity and divergence. This limits the ability to generate the rich variety of ideas and options required to be truly adaptable.

Mugil Manivannan believes many organizations suffer from a lack of “cultural variation” while Stephanie Sharma points out that many organizations are lacking women leaders “bringing the feminine to organizational lens of leadership.”

Alan Arnett thinks “organizational cultures focus too much on 'the right answer', 'the right values', 'the right strategy' and then trying to manage against it, instead of using the diversity of opinions to get creative ideas into action and then adapt along the way.” His suggestion: “Let people be themselves, and learn to use the differences effectively, instead of trying to manage conformity.”

Enemy #12: Lack of Purpose

A paucity of organizations without a shared purpose may have trouble aligning on a natural path for adaptation.

Julien Pascual says that without “mission, vision, and values that are engaging and crazy, epic enough to define a journey worth being followed” employees will have “no ‘why’ to adapt what they do or how they do it.”


Many hackathon contributors also had great ideas for how to synthesize the contributions from the first two sprints into core themes. Go here to read their ideas and add your own.

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Under Fear, performance appraisals that tie pay to performance will promote a climate of fear and sucking up behavior. This contaminates the communications process and makes it difficult to get honest feedback. The appraisal process will also absorb tons of management time and make everyone uneasy. Another thing that can drive short term fear and fire fighting is a lack of understanding of variation. Many organizations spend a lot of time putting out fires that don't exist, and in some cases ignoring problems that are real.

Excellent reply and although a number of business principals have evolved, what has happened to 'the one minute' method (1984) where we are asked to catch someone doing something GOOD and then invoke one minute appraisals or one minute reprimands on the spot - not building up to a 6 month crescendo when appraisals occur.
Dont under-estimate the impact of true working KPIs. We all know what 50mph is, because the dials on our dashboard tells us that, but if there is no true measurement to benchmark most of our deliverables or time spent against - we are requesting managers to observe, reply in writing at a later date - not adaptable at all

marc-west's picture

I believe one of the most important inhibitors to adability is our awareness, to be conscious of the decisions we make why, what, how and what if, Kolb, how we behave with others, and our unconscious ques that make up our behavior, In many cases we are limited in our mindset to understand our true unconscious motivations.
The second most important inhibitor is flatland, the concept that we believe our consciousness is a flat land, that man is not developmentally evolving, this limits our ability to recognize that the process of bifurcating from one system to another (mindset change) is impacted by our lack of awareness in what motivates us to heathy state, to make conscious decisions that serves the new paradigms.
The third most important inhibitor to change is consensus, we believe that we are making greater decision through consensus versus shared decision making. In many organizations consensus isn't pluralistic, its poor decision making based on passive agressive projections, versus shared ideals, values and understanding.
My fourth inhibibitor is the organization, majority of organizations see themselves as being a loan entities in the supply chain, a supplier versus a partner, a provider focused on profit versus partnership in an economy across a values chain, versus the value chain.
My final inhibitor is generational learning styles, majority of classics and early boomers were brought up using avoidant based learning styles, late boomers and X gens expectancy based learning styles, the new paradigm is observational based modeling and cognitive theory. The new paradigm will require the healthy elements of the last two learning styled a high bred of expectancy and observational learning styles to change behaviors, cognitive strategies and create healthy mindset for educating and transforming organizations inside out.