Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

john-mcgurk's picture

Defining Adaptability: Synthesis of QuickMIX contributions

By John McGurk on May 14, 2022

During the orientation sprint, we asked contributors to participate in a QuickMIX brainstorm. The task was to have each contributor share one or more aspects of an adaptable organisation with the hope that our collective ideas would provide a more holistic view of how adaptable organizations might look.

During the orientation sprint, we asked contributors to participate in a QuickMIX brainstorm. The task was to have each contributor share one or more aspects of an adaptable organisation with the hope that our collective ideas would provide a more holistic view of how adaptable organizations might look.

In total, 130 amazing ideas were submitted. In the following post, I’ve tried to synthesize some key themes that stood out for me after reading the QuickMIX entries. But I would also encourage you to get involved. If there are other elements that stood out for you, please feel free to add them in the comments section below this post.

Say yes and make the culture permissive

Gemma Reucroft encouraged us to have a permissive culture around measured risk. “Your organisation is adaptable if it is prepared to say yes, to try, take measured risk. You are adaptable if people who challenge are seen as a benefit, and not a pain in the rear.”

For Monique Jordan, learning is being open to not knowing and that is a key issue. “Adaptive organizations learn and leaders are comfortable with not having all the answers and relying (encouraging) their teams to discover, find new ways to learn.”

Down with hierarchy, get collaborative with social technology

“Adaptable organizations that embrace collaborative ways of making decisions and innovating new goods and services disregard bureaucracy and the status quo, allowing a free flow of information that is communicated to all,” said Nigel Barron. “You know your organization's adaptable when hierarchies are dismantled in favor a collaborative approach to decision making and innovation.”

Let ideas flourish but don’t let the bad ones linger

Quite a few posts said we should encourage ideas but we should be merciless in putting bad ideas to the sword. Christian Jakobsen Petersen said, “An adapting company has no scrutiny in killing off a bad idea or initiative. There are no rules or legacy to defend. There is internal unity against external threats, but they are not shy of internal fights in decision making.”

Perhaps reflecting on some of the edge innovators he went on to say “the [adaptable] company is a ragged collection of mentally deranged/genius people who, when in sync, can take on a monumental task.” Strong and bracing stuff! 

Be flat and customer shaped

Keith Gulliver wrote about organizations being flat, responsive, and customer-shaped. “You know your organization's adaptable when it is able to rapidly mobilise and demobilise resources in response to the customer's needs,” he said.

The notion of being responsive to both customers and employees was also identified as a key issue by my fellow guide Claire McCartney. “Often the most adaptable organisations are those that actively seek out and use both their employees and customers/clients' expertise. They recognise the need to interact with both groups in different ways. This involvement goes way beyond simple one-sided communication to active involvement in shaping and even sponsorship of business strategy.”

Arm the rebels!

Stefan Blobelt observed that “adaptability is building upon resilient structures that are created by promoting and incentivising people who are innovative experimenters and inventors rather than efficiency nitpickers and bureaucratic planners.”

Hackathon guide Michele Zanini said that in an adaptable organization, heretical voices are valued, not muzzled. “Within any organization, it’s usually the malcontents and rebels who are the first to sense the decay of the strategy or business model, and the first to see value in radically different ideas. The most adaptable companies will be those that encourage people to voice viewpoints that aren't in the mainstream.”

Management shifts from rules to responsiveness

As you cannot anticipate the need for change, you need to create the conditions where there is no need for change. Self-adapting structures based on cooperation. Remove the constraints to change. Redefine management, make it an activity that creates the conditions where employees can express their talents, not define for them what to do and how to do it.

Huw Morris wrote that “An [adaptable] organisation [is one] that achieves top quartile performance (compared with peers) for a very extended period by continuously sensing changes in its environment and then transforming by developing the new competencies needed, implementing the changes effectively, and withdrawing from the activities that their market no longer adequately values.”

Ian Jeffreys expressed a similar theme, using the metaphor of the transformer toy. “You know your organisation is adaptable when the strategy, plans, policies and processes are not cast in tablets of stone. Everything should be interchangeable and interconnecting, so that rather likes my son’s favourite toy, they can be transformed and united against any situation.”

Reflexive and ready to give employees AMO

According to Morgan Edwards, organizational adaptability is “the ability of an organization to make necessary adjustments throughout the company in order to accommodate for the intense dynamism and unpredictability of modern day business environments, allowing the company to stay active and competitive in its market.”

For hackathon guide Chris Grams, adaptability means having an employee community open to change. “If the culture and incentives aren't aligned toward embracing change and experimentation vs. preserving safety or the status quo, the adaptability efforts will fail,” he said.

Ashley [last name not provided] used CIPD’s AMO (ability, motivation, opportunity) concept. “Enough people with the ability (trained and developed) and motivation (desire and engagement) to use their ability, and being given the opportunity/empowerment to do so, will result in an organisation that is culturally agile. It will be able to draw on its people to make effective change, with resources, tools, capability and attitude.”

Stefan Blobelt posed a challenge to adaptability he thinks can be controlled by “stopping the misled 'color by numbers' (MbO) management practices and replacing them through work process and hence people oriented measures (Management by Means).” According to Stefan, “No one can manage a system by using descriptive (reductionist numbers) instead of explanatory (understanding the means) models!”

Adaptability not anarchy

Adaptability is not the knee-jerk following of trends or ideas. Overall business objectives must remain clear, offering rational response to threats and opportunities while retaining strengths and identifying weaknesses (either pre-existing or incurred/inherent in adaptation). Freedom without boundaries is anarchy; adaptability without consistency is chaos. When everyone in an organisation is fully engaged and knows how their role fits into the bigger picture and the impact or consequence others may face due to their actions, it creates a high level of ownership and responsibility to continually improve. Change and adaptability then become the norm.

Sukhwant Bal suggested that an adaptable organisation would be one where “those closest to the problem “tool" the right action for the greater good. Where problems and issues are not passed up-the-line…but dealt with before they became raging fires. Where every colleague is encouraged to play to their strengths and make a difference. Where the role of every leader is to cultivate more leaders vs. followers.”

Stretch and scout to stay elastic

For Stefan Blobelt, “adaptability requires changes in static personnel policy and rule systems to work into the ‘freedom to act’—elasticity required to collectively behave always a little bit more agile than competitors and market participants.”

Marianne Jackson said adaptability is also about more than just responding when changes are obvious. “The best organizations scout the environment for trends or emerging forces & act on them. Occasionally, companies have the unique opportunity to create positive disruption in their world. For those that command that level of agility they are truly leaders.”

Get the energy bubbling up

Bubbles are fun for kids and usually bad for markets. Richard James Barnes thought the bubble idea could help us drive adaptability in organisations. To get bubbling he suggested having a “low rule, high interaction culture.” According to Richard, organizations can become more adaptable if they “reduce bureaucracy, limit the dead hand of audit and anti-e-policies, whilst encouraging 'bubbling'”. He said, “If you want to know what that is, watch what happens to cold water when it becomes hot. Bubbles are created, merge, dissipate reform etc. Adaptable organisations are like that, anti-clique, pro-bubble.”

Switch on the energy

There is lots of chemistry in our adaptability mix of all kinds, elasticity, bubbles, and now energy. Michael Sonntag took up the energy issue. Just like our bodies, organisations have to bend and stretch.  “Adaptability has to do with long term vitality under changing circumstances. To do this, an organization needs to keep its organizational energy continuously high. This is only possible, when it sustainably co-creates shared value for all involved stakeholders.”

Heidi De Wolf discussed having a coaching approach to the employees. Just like a fitness coach, an organisational fitness coach can get the best from you. “Adaptable organisations are organisations where employees are empowered to use their strengths for the benefit of the organisation, are coached in making better-informed decisions, where leaders are self-aware about their impact and where collaboration wins over competitiveness.”  

My thought: Perhaps there is something about coaching helping to train the adaptability muscle as well.

While on this body theme, Johnny H. Ryser explained how we should look at what you could call the reflexiveness of the organisation “just like the human body.” He said, “if we use certain parts of the brain, it becomes stronger, while if we stop using a part, it becomes weaker to preserve energy. Our body is both extremely adaptive in terms of energy preservation and in terms of development of skills and strengths.”

Turned on talent is a tenet of adaptability

Kubatova Jaroslava & Kukelkova Adela identified a big talent aspect to adaptability. “Reacting to the global talent war surrounding us, an organisation must be able to attract the best talent available on the labour market. An adaptable organisation must quickly react on talents needs and progressively change its Employee Care Programme, especially those designed for Talents.”

Pin this on your fridge

As her contribution, Edna Pasher offered a great little mantra:

“Act fast, to enjoy it, and to learn fast from success and from failure and try something new everyday, every week, every month every year.”

Put that on your fridge to warn up your adaptability muscles!


After reading through the team’s QuickMIX contributions, I’d draw the following conclusions about adaptability in our organizations.

Adaptability is about being “adaptile” (adaptable and agile). So making the culture permissive rather than restrictive is a common rallying call. Letting ideas multiply but culling the bad ones is another tenet of adaptability. Having structures which are flat and focused on the customer in its many guises, is another addition to the adaptability mix. All of this means you have to tolerate rebels and malcontents those who are fed up with the present and who want to do things differently as a dimension of adaptability. This all involves a shift from management by rule restriction and exception to management for responsiveness and engagement. You need energy and elasticity to stretch the capability required for adaptability.

Would you agree with my conclusions? Anything else that stood out for you? Please feel free to add your thoughts below.

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ian-davidson's picture

Disappointed that reward systems did not get a mention in your summary. People will do what they are incentivised to do. If you pay to keep the status quo you get the status quo; if you pay for change you will get some change.
I accept that there are a number of meta issues that need to be addressed. But motivation is a major driver and like it or not people are, to some extent or another, motivated by what they get out of it – be it pay, bonus, pension etc. Even if pay is considered “merely” a hygiene factor getting it wrong impact outputs

john-mcgurk's picture

Fail fast and Fix. Great piece of alliterative insight to the adaptability challenge Martin. I am blogging about a new series where young chefs are mentored by master chefs and the three Fs are very much at the fore in their learning. It’s always about context so maybe people can think about own environment. Does three F's work? Paul puts forward an "adpatablity index". Paul CIPD aims to put HR and L&TD into a more analytical space so your idea appeals.. What do other hackathoners think?

paul-cesare_1's picture

Just a thought, we need to create two "Adaptability Indexes" (organizational and individual) to measure the degree of adaptability readiness identified by both entities. So the first step I would take is to create an "Adaptability Scorecard." The scorecard would be designed in the fashion of a numerical point system (for example, 100 being the most desirable adaptability attributes to 0 being the least desirable attribute (or even minus points like -10). The purpose and usefulness of creating a scorecard is to identify best/worst attributes and the scorecard's utility is to direct orgs/people to put into practice (with due diligence and repetition) those most desirable "adaptability attributes/qualities." The beauty of this strategy is that we encourage people to embrace adaptability because it is the more desirable state. We are trying to cultivate an environment, as Gary Hamel says, that ellicits the best out of human beings. We are trying to build a coalition of people who "want to" adapt as opposed to "have to" adapt. We may even create a new name for these adaptability-seeking folks..."Adaptarians."

martin-sutherland's picture

The 3 F's have always been a useful mantra for adaptability: Fail Fast and Fix. Without failure, you probably aren't trying hard enough. Without fast you are not being efficient enough. Without fix you probably aren't learning anything.