Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

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gary-hamel's picture

What is Adaptability?

By Gary Hamel on April 16, 2022

How to tell whether your organization is truly adaptable.

Most of us have no trouble in coming up with examples of companies that failed to mobilize around a major new opportunity (e.g., Intel and chips for mobile devices), or procrastinated when confronted with a wrenching discontinuity (e.g., Kodak and digital photography), or struggled to let go of a beloved but dying strategy (e.g. General Motors and its bloated brand portfolio.)  In most of the cases of strategic inertia I’ve come across, HR wasn’t the primary culprit, but neither was it a powerful force for proactive change.  We’ve launched this hackathon with our friends at CIPD because we believe HR can play a hugely positive role in helping companies to become adaptable at their core.

I’ve always loved this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:  “There are always two parties—the party of the past and the party of the future, the establishment and the movement.  The question is, to which party does the HR function belong?  Imagine if we posed the following survey question to everyone in your company:

Which of these two statements most accurately describes the HR function in this organization?

1.   HR is a powerful catalyst for change.

2.   HR is a major impediment to change.

Ideally, more than 90% of your associates would pick statement #1, but I suspect this might not be the case if you ran the survey today.   However, if we work together, we can start to change this.  As we tackle this challenge, we need to start with a shared definition of adaptability. What, after all, is the distinction between “agile,” “resilient” “flexible,” and “adaptable?”  To an extent these terms are interchangeable, and whatever the word, any definition is at least somewhat arbitrary.  So instead of consulting the dictionary, let’s get clear about the sort of organizations we are trying to build.

I’m betting you’d like to work for an organization that . . .

  • Never takes refuge in denial
  • Is positively discontent
  • Always plays offense and never defense
  • Rushes out to meet the future
  • Is relentlessly optimistic
  • Regularly reinvents itself and its industry
  • Captures more than its fair share of tomorrow’s opportunities
  • Frequently surprises both its customers and competitors

   . . . and does all this in the absence of a crisis.   Now that would be an adaptable organization.

I like to make a distinction between operational agility, and strategic adaptability.  Operational agility implies an ability to respond quickly to shifts in demand or customer preference within the boundaries of an existing business model.  A great example of an initiative focused on agility would be Volkswagen Group’s new MQB manufacturing strategy.  (Translated into English, Modularer Querbaukasten means Modular Transverse Matrix.)  The MQB architecture allows a wide range of vehicles (Audis, Seats, Skodas and VWs) to be produced on a small number of platforms.

Strategic adaptability, by contrast, refers to a company’s capacity to reconfigure its underlying business concept, by dramatically rethinking . . .

  • Its core mission
  • Its primary value proposition
  • The identify and nature of the end customer
  • The method or channels of distribution
  • Its revenue or pricing model
  • The markets or industries in which it competes
  • Its core competencies
  • Its ecosystem of business partners
  • The degree to which it is vertically or horizontally integrated
  • The basic way in which it produces products and services

To take an example, we’ve all experienced Amazon’s operational agility—it’s ability to rapidly assemble our unique order from tens of thousands of SKUs and deliver it to us in day or two.  But Amazon is also a case study in strategic adaptability.  During it’s brief history, it has morphed from a Web-based bookseller, to an online retail platform, to a digital media powerhouse, and most recently, to a leader in cloud computing.

Amazon is rather unique in that it has changed its business model in the absence of a performance crisis.  Usually, major strategic shifts are driven by a financial meltdown, or years of substandard returns.  As I’ve said on numerous occasions, deep change in big companies usually happens the same way it happens in poorly governed dictatorships—infrequently, belated, and convulsively; and for the same reason—a top-down authority structure frustrates bottom-up change.  All too often, by the time an issue gets big enough to attract the CEO’s attention, whether an opportunity or a threat, it’s too late to do anything but react.  A case in point:  By the time Google’s top brass roused themselves to do something serious about social media, Facebook had already built a nearly insurmountable lead.  In my experience, the vast majority of corporate “change” programs are “catch-up” programs.

 In my view, it shouldn’t require a financial crisis, swinging lay-offs, a clean sweep of the executive suite and a crippled share price to realign a company’s strategy.  That’s why we need to change the way we change.  Change needs to happen a whole lot faster and a whole lot cheaper than it does now.

To put it simply, we’re trying to maximize the following ratio . . .

Frequency and amplitude of strategic change

Time, treasure and trauma required to produce that change

To borrow from military doctrine, we’re trying to find ways of tightening the “OODA loop”—the time it takes in a dynamic environment to observe, orient, decide and act.   On the battlefield, the army with the shortest OODA loop usually wins.  The same holds true in business.  If you can make sense of what’s changing more quickly, and redeploy your resources more rapidly, you win.

As the pace of change accelerates, so must the pace of strategic renewal.  Indeed, one of the most important questions for any enterprise today is this:  Are we changing as fast as the world around us?  All to often, the answer is no.  Hence this hackathon.

Given the primary role HR plays in many of an organization’s core processes (e.g., performance review, talent deployment, organizational development, change management, compensation), HR has the chance to be a true catalyst for strategic adaptability.  So let’s push ourselves to imagine how HR can get out in front and raise the banner for the party of the future. 

Dear hackathon participants, we’d love to hear what adaptability means to you (please provide your thoughts as a comment to this blog post). Here are a couple of questions to get you started:

  • How would you define strategic adaptability?
  • How would you tell whether an organization is truly adaptable (i.e., what are its distinguishing traits)?


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Adaptability, in my simplistic view, is less of "Job Descriptions" and more of "Skill Requirements". While it is desirable to create a future or systems to gain an insight to the future, it is important for every individual employee to be rightly skilled to reduce the OODA Loop.

Distinguishing traits of an adaptable organisation is a young workforce in an otherwise 'age old' organisation.

What constitutes a young work force is an interesting question? I think age is a factor and more importantly for me it is the emotional maturity, adaptability, capacity, flexibity and depth of compassion of individuals, teams and organisations that make a siginificant difference.

This can be difficult to develop as it is a choice - conscious or unconscious and individuals, teams and organisations at different points do reach their limit in my experience in terms of how far they want to journey. As a coach and facilitator I challenge but the ultimate choice is not mine to make. This therefore impacts adaptability for organsations and the reality and 'how to' skill a workforce to reduce the OODA loop. Evolution springs to mind...

To understand what is going to happen tomorrow we need to understand those who will define tomorrow - the next generation of leaders. When I look at my children I see the astonishing adaptability that they embody. They live in four environments - nationality Irish, born and early education in UK, moved to China for 5 years and now living in Bangkok. They move seamlessly between these four very different environments, speaking fluent Chinese, playing hurling, relishing Thai food and maintaining networks via Skype and FaceTime in all four. They manage the logistics of their lives - sport, music, academics, friends & family, extensive & frequent travel with the minimum of stress and with huge confidence and enthusiasm. They do not understand organisations, only networks, they see technology as a tool, they are excited by new and interesting ideas and experiences and they are caring and concerned about their world and the injustices they see. They live a life of privilege and work with the homeless and dispossessed. For me they embody the type of adaptability that is most relevant to the future.

didier-hauvette's picture

Thank you Gary, for your contribution, and thank you, to all of you, for your responses and commentaries. They are very inspiring for me.
Thank you Doug and Khurshed for these personal characteristics that we need to valorize if we want to promote both agility and adaptability

kori-joneson_1's picture

Strategic adaptability to me means to be proactively future focused on consumer wants and needs through empowered, engaged, innovative and overall healthy employees while maintaining the least disruptive environmental and community path.

Potential adaptable company traits might include:

- embedded into mission and values that builds connection with employees and customers
- customer focused, not worried what competitors are doing but carving its own path
- works smart, quick and with minimal waste
- encourages risk taking, embraces and learns from failures
- integrated not siloed, every department is on the same page working towards the same goals with the flexibility to make the necessary adaptations without going up the chain to keep moving forward
- transparent with both internal and external communities
- systems, resources, managers and top leaders that support and empower employees to develop, create, innovate discover, collaborate, experiment
- long-term growth, consistently at the top of its industry
- leaders found at all levels of the company and leadership readiness programs to ensure the company is in good hands for generations to come

I'm sure there are several important traits that I missed, but if I knew the magic mix I would be extremely wealthy by now! With that said, I'm not a believer in one size fits all, but I do think there is a solid foundation that companies can build from. Really enjoying the various perspectives on here and look forward to more meaningful conversations and idea sharing that will no doubt lead to a much needed shift in organizational (and HR) strategy and bring us closer to discovering what this foundation might look like.

I'm thinking strategic adaptability is being able to tell the truth.

peter-cheese's picture

Feels like we have lots of good input on what agility/adaptability really is, and HRs potential in enabling this. Intriguing comments re what I think of as the beyond Ulrich thinking. Can HR really deliver on the operational agenda and be truly strategic and working on the agility dimensions - should we split in to 2 (or more?) as Bruce is suggesting? I would like to think we can do both and I think other functions arguably do it, but it is easier if the HRD has the resources under them where they can have someone looking after the operational HR stuff and free them up for more of working on the big agendas. Where they are caught between these two 'rocks' may be as much due to how leaders across the business understand and want to use HR - even CEOs can divert their HRDs on to lots of 'operational' issues, and that is true for HRBPs. We need to get the views of business leaders on this as well and have the confidence to 'educate' them where we need to on the strategic importance of HR in building more agile organisations. But I think we have also been too focussed as HR in many organisations about shared services, CoEs, HRBPs and taking cost out of HR (which in terms of the total cost of the business is minimal anyway) and with much effort this has not always delivered much improvement in terms of real value to the business. We should take these ideas forwards in to following 'Sprints' which will bring together the real hack ideas on HR.

ulrich-nettesheim's picture

Yes Peter, my experience mirrors yours. HR in many organizations (with good intentions and sometimes immense pressure from the business), has focused more on how HR is delivered and less on what HR's highest value work should be. I cited one specific example in response to Gary's earlier questions about what HR's role in adaptability should be. I suggested that HR could/should help an organization re-design governance so that how the business is governed can adapt at the speed with which the marketplace is changing. How many major innovations in mature businesses get choked off by barriers that reside in how the enterprise is governed? Tangible contributions enabling real innovation and organic growth would be one way to change the game (and the conversations) about HR's value in supporting adaptability.

stephanie-sharma's picture

Thank you for the introduction and the challenge Gary! I'll respond first and then I'll go back and read comments and comment there.
How would you define strategic adaptability?:
Maybe in addition to 'dramatically rethinking' shifts in strategic imperatives, strategic adaptability is one step or so beyond the rethinking and includes redesigning and/or reengineering through proactive insights about the future, and the way in which these functions exist or happen. This is likely a key intent of this hackathon. I also think that for organizations to truly be strategically adaptable, at the core of their mission and purpose must be this intent to allow for innovation as Amazon does through what is naturally part of how it does business through decentralized productivity. This is not suggesting that it be simply listed as a core value or goal, though that might be a place to start, but must be co-created across management and individual functions, and authentically emulated by senior leaders so that trust in such processes that foster an adaptable culture can exist and evolve.

How would you tell whether an organization is truly adaptable (i.e., what are its distinguishing traits)?
Holistic organizational viewpoint, a grasp on the future, tolerance and patience for a true co-creation process that nudges but also leads; leadership is truly plugged into key stakeholders (from the board to the front line) and aware of potential politics and reisistance.
When strategic change is defined as a need in any one or more areas, all areas of potential impact are considered, tested and/or challenged so that success is more likely. Traits would include: co-creation of input, terms, approach, and metrics that will define the change, patience by the change agents with the process of co-creation but courage to push when necessary and pull-back when resistance is detrimental to the success.

A case from a few years ago, that I will likely use throughout my sharing and learning as part of this hackathon is a healthcare organization whose senior leadership including senior level HR created a vision based on a model of well-being and health focus with reduction of hospitals, introduction of at-home models, wellness care vs. continuation of the nation's current sick-care model where hospitals are many and specialized services are many and where the sicker the patients are, the more the hospital makes. This was a bold attempt to shift the organizational strategy and focus and they failed. With hindsight, they failed because they underestimated the power of money as defined by physicians' historic framework of existence and the associated dependency of that framework by the rest of the organization. Additionally, while leadership development and coaching were at the core of their reframing the strategic imperative, senior leaders including HR did not have the 'pulse' of the organization's readiness and understanding about the pace for change. Their pace was much faster and without the connections required to ensure a shift vs. a mandate. With the perception of mandate came resistance, with resistance came a desire for 'the way it was' even if this current 'sick state' wasn't right.


Thanks for your commentary. I really hope others in the thread take up and play with the concept of dividing HR into two distinct functions, one dealing with risk and administration and the other dealing with human capital optimization (or whatever term one chooses for the strategic side).

I have had the same thought, in fact. Actually, I don't think it's just straight from Ulrich. Rather, it takes Ulrich a major step further. Whereas Ulrich proposes dividing the HR function into distinct areas of competency, your idea is much bolder. It's like the difference between departmentalization and spin-off. Again, I think there's gold in them thar hills.

bruce-lewin's picture

Hi Jim, thanks also for your thoughts too...

Whilst 'splitting' HR into it's various forms (e.g. shared services, centres of excellence, offshoring/outsourcing etc.) have been around since Ulrich (see this piece on Google's Three Third's HR Dept for a post-Ulrich example, I don't think it's been formalised (in the way that sales and marketing are justifiably different departments) because of the lack of robust, scalable, valuable and predictive HR strategy tool. There are lots of candidates for such a tool though, most of which have been around for 20 or more years, but none have built any noteworthy traction, at least not enough to justify the formal splitting of the HR department, or to approach anything like a Six Sigma type level of adoption and outcomes across different industries.

I've written some reasons as to the causes of this scenario in a piece called HR - Boom or Bust?. In terms of what a solution might look like though, there are some embryonic thoughts here - A Physics of People and The 5 Criteria to Transform Business.

Bottom line, without a new strategic tool, business process or any other way to add demonstrable value, not much is going to happen in terms of transforming HR.

stephen-tovey's picture

Have come too late to this party to say something that hasn't already been said.

But just to say, I really like Neil Morrison's tanker/surfer analogy. While a lot of us are coming from an HR position, I'd assume, it's not about just the HR function being adaptable, but everyone in the business, being responsive to changes economically, socially, globally, ways of working, business practices, structures, people and not just in the direct market the business works in.

And being adaptable quickly - taking 12 months to catch up can leave a company dead in the water (there's a way to link that back to the tanker/surfer analogy if you can work it...).

If we're looking at how HR can help organisations be more adaptable, it's a case of mentality. Not saying "can't, because of..." but "can, and here's how". Or even better, identifying needed changes and new directions first and then saying "How about... "

tojo-eapen's picture

Jon, thank you for sharing! Very useful to hear multiple perspectives and inputs.

tojo-eapen's picture

Noticed this interesting article yesterday on S+B - The Agility Factor, http://strat.bz/mxRqyKP

That got me thinking - In your view, How is 'Agility' related to 'Adaptability'?

Thank you!

jon-ingham's picture

Tojo, I think they’re pretty much the same thing, though perhaps agility is more about speed of movement, and adaptability is ensuring the organisation actually does move when it needs to do so.

Anyway, more generally, it’s great to see so many comments on here. I must admit I got a bit put off commenting by the lengthy intro from Gary which made me feel less sure that my opinion was really wanted than would have been the case otherwise. I’ve not wanted to share before as I know the spirit of the hackathon is about being positive and not criticising, and I want to support this as much as I can. But I still think it’s an important point, and, I’d therefore like to add:

For me agility / adaptability are about creating an organisation in which everyone can input on needs and opportunities to make a change in direction, rather than being given one person’s vision, and being allowed to comment - which is nowhere near as enabling. This isn’t about a free for all, but allowing maximum insight to be raised and shared before a decision is taken, which everyone is then expected to support (play their own role in helping to achieve).

eerik-lundmark's picture

Strategic adaptability to me boils down to the capability to move into new fields and to leave old (dear) games, on time and with less inertia than competitors.

I think you need to take care of three dimensions to be superior in adaptability. You need a sound foresight, a culture supporting the change and resources to speed up the change. With resources I refer mainly to people. You need funding, too, but if your people are not adaptable, competitors will likely use their funding better and beat you.

Foresight is on the agenda of boards and management teams, but culture and capabilities – as change enablers – are often not as well attended as they need to be, and here’s a big opportunity for HR. Do we hire people for the job only or for both the job and adaptability? Do we just value entrepreneurship or do we step further and systematically encourage and develop initiative?

Another starting point in evaluating the adaptability could be to assess whether the OODA loop is visible on all levels and functions of the company. You might name the process differently, as long as you recognize the substance. Going a bit further, does the OODA loop feed the organisation upwards and does the management take advantage of the process in their strategy work instead of just communicating the strategy downwards?

giuseppe-gerardo-ciarambino's picture

I agree with the distinction between "operational agility" and "strategic adaptability" made by Gary.
They also agree on the naming of the OODA.
Starting from this premise, we need to focus on that the strategic adaptability includes a good dose of foresight, because to be successful, a company needs to get it ready by the change.
for this purpose it is important the first "O" of OODA: Observe, find all the information that allow you to shape the future as much as possible.
This implies a profound reengineering of the corporate structure and not just the HR function.
As regards the function HR, it is necessary to provide two levels of action: a general one, much narrower than the current, and a specific, peripheral, attributable to the individual middle managers of the various sectors.

Let me articulate it in one sentence, adaptability is the ability of an organization to change its internal environment, its structure (how people are organized to get things done), its strategy (the guiding principles, related projects and processes), its resource allocations (resource distribution on its activities) in reaction to "related" trends in its external environment, the societies of customers and employees, the alternative means of providing its value to its customers, the alternative technologies, to orient and act on >.

I think HR has a major role when it comes to issues concerning people who form the adaptable organization, organizations are like individuals who need to be adaptable in their daily lives so that they keep on feeling meaningful, pursuing dreams and maintaining their income.

HR has the role of letting people in and out properly, organizing their working environment and structure, keeping people motivated and retained, and providing them with tools to accomplish excellent jobs.

HR need to work on three parallel paths:
- Supply side: Society namely expertise, life styles, moods, controls, values, income, tools trends
- Demand side: Understand and communicate what is the org. next "locus", and engage in activities of sensing markets and analysis of org. current competitive advantages and ways of making that happen
- HR distinctive value: Need to know what people are suitable for what kind of job, what the best structure is so that they do great job, how we can keep people feel engaged and effective, what resources are needed to accomplish that.

It is easy for HR to end up throwing too many initiatives so that to accomplish a larger number of goals, however people can't change collectively as fast, HR need to know what initiatives would result in larger impact on number of goals at once, and pursue them and do it over time maintaining the story in each employee's life.

miguel-sacramento_1's picture

Environments where mistakes can be openly assumed and ideas way out of its core business are welcomed may lead to adaptable organizations. Management is the challenge.

ulrich-nettesheim's picture

I am a big fan of the aspiration that HR can be a potential catalyst for adaption in organizations. I also see a lot of "pain and suffering" when that aspiration is not realized. HR can be, perhaps should be, at the heart of cracking the code on adaptability. Imagine if HR were to stand shoulder to shoulder with line executives and take center stage to reinvent how the organization is governed? What if governance and management were fundamentally transformed in the organization so that governance adapted to stakeholder requirements at the pace of change of the marketplace? How long would it take Apple to transform its management model - 2+ years? Google? Big Global Bank- how high can you count? HR can and should focus on adaptability and I submit governance and management practices are fertile ground for delivering on the promise of high value from HR.

meg-steele's picture

I've been studying Ronald Heifetz this year, in particular reading Adaptive Leadership and Leadership Without Easy Answers. So, my take on this question comes from that perspective. I'm looking at strategic adaptability from the vantage point of leadership, and the traits that comprise adaptive leadership as well as learning and adaptive organizations. The ability to be strategic comes from being adaptive, either as a leader or as an organization. Heifetz says the single most important skill in being adaptive is diagnosis - having the ability to 'get on the balcony' and see the whole as greater than the sum of its parts, and to recognize the gap between espoused values and values being practiced. When leaders and organizations practice adaptive leadership they learn versus react, and apply long-term, strategic, adaptive solutions versus short-term, technical solutions. HR and other leaders of change must hone and develop the skills of adaptive leadership if they are to be at the forefront of strategy.

I like that Kirstie mentions systems theory in her contribution above, because in order for HR to play the role that is envisioned the profession will need to get out of its own way, by which I mean its own reductionistic ways. Rather than being the catalyst of change and adaptability, HR is without knowing it a major obstacle today. Adaptable organizations cannot manage performance through an annual cascading cycle in which the strategy is expected to filter down from the top so that each individual has a role, however tiny, in its achievement. This flies directly in the face of systems theory precept that the sum of the parts do not equal the whole. People cannot be defined, selected and managed as packages of competencies. This flies in the face of real-world complexity and the fact that people are defined only in relationship to other people, not as distinct and disconnected "objects." Finally, HR needs to get out of the business of minimizing risk and into the business of encouraging it. Today, as a practical matter, HR's job is focused on helping the organization manage the risks associated with employing people. Unfortunately, regulations and litigation have forced them into this role. So, the HR professional that is the catalyst of change must give that role over to somebody else. HR cannot have it both ways.

bruce-lewin's picture

Hi Jim, I really enjoyed your line "people are defined only in relationship to other people, not as distinct and disconnected objects" - I think this goes a long way to challenging some of the core beliefs of a section of practitioners and the philosophies and tools they employ. As you rightly say, for HR to recast it's role, I think some of the core assumptions behind HR need to be questioned and in some cases, resigned to history.

Likewise, you are right, HR is caught between the de-risking nature of legislation on the one hand and the desire to be strategic and a Business Partner on another. Whilst other support functions wrestle with similar administrative versus strategic debates, HR's unique given that its administrative items are so personal and are so important to each person. Understandably, people have high expectations when it comes to their salary being paid, holiday entitlements and if they are going to still have a job after a downsizing. None of the other support functions have to deal with these sorts of personal problems!

By implication, it seems like in order to excel at both the fundamentals and the strategic, that two functions might be a better option, one strategic and one operational/administrative. I'm sure all of this sounds like it's straight from Ulrich but I don't know of many examples where this has happened. Typically, a HRD will have responsibility for admin/a shared service centre and HR strategy and hence will always be caught between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps spliting HR into two and creating new roles, new titles, new processes, new departments and new offices might help make the distinction clearer and to the benefit of everyone, not just HR?

heidi-de-wolf's picture

It appears to me that highly legislative processes have paralysed some HR professionals from thinking outside of the box and fearful to let go of what - in a different time - was deemed good practice. Many of those processes today are causing the high volume of litigation scenarios leaving HR in a vicious cycle of fear and reinforcement of that fear. This leaves little time for thinking and planning to support the future workforce which has the potential to unlock the box and become more proactive, and as such prevent the problems of tomorrow.

HR too is evidence-driven meaning that unless proof already exists it may not be believed to be an effective solution. HR needs to be led by organisational system thinkers/mavericks if they are to make the necessary leap into the future.

klaus-oberbauer's picture

Strategic adaptability is responding to impulses you are getting. Like a ball that is bounced off the floor or wall, an organization reacts to impulses, by using the own inner strengths, to keep the movement alive.
You can judge if an organization is truly adaptive by the quickness and effectivity it reacts to these influences. It has to be able to immediately regroup its strenghts towards responding to the new impulse. In general I don't think adaptability is shown by the organizational structure, rather than by the attitude and abilities of an organization's members. Firstly they have to be willing to react quickly and secondly they also need the ability to do so. Therefore they have to be trained and need first- hand access to all relevant information about the organization. In preparing these 2 conditions, I see the key role of HR - training people to be adaptive and fast- reacting and at the same time to share and acquire information effectively.

monique-jordan_1's picture

• How would you define strategic adaptability?
Strategic adaptability begins with an insatiable appetite for knowing and learning and a full appreciation that the more you know, the more there is to know. Strategic adaptability then would be a plan (or approach) for questioning everything, challenging assumptions and trying to see what we currently don’t see. Such an approach would require deliberate non-conformance for the purpose of discovery.
• How would you tell whether an organization is truly adaptable (i.e., what are its distinguishing traits)?
I imagine an adaptive organization would have a very flat structure. People would be recognized for their Knowledge and skills and not titles, where teams form organically to achieve a specific outcome that furthers the orgs purpose/goals. Everyone would clearly understand the purpose and be personally committed to achieving the collective goals which in turn would fulfill their personal goals. They would accept full ownership for understanding their environment (anything that influences or effects their work, customers, team members, markets, industry suppliers etc). People would be engaged in (what I call) Think Out Loud sessions – where random people come together to ‘think’ for the purpose of understanding, clarifying or discovering. They would have several experiments working and high customer satisfaction, highly engaged team members, many new ideas and innovative solutions. It would be an organization fueled by discovery not competition.

yes and are these some of the definitions of a learning organization? Argyris helped tease this out.

heidi-de-wolf's picture

Very thought-provoking, thank you, Heidi

david-evans's picture

Experience would suggest that organisation and adaptable are not words that should regularly be used together! I would expect to see in an adaptable organisation - a start point of commitment to job security for employees, so not redundancies as the first option to problem figures; leaders willing to listen to the truth even when it is unpalatable; leaders who really care first about the people, the customers and the organisation and not their own self interest; the rigth leaders in place supported by 'light touch' processes - not the monstrous HR bureaucratic procedures used in some companies; leaders who are genuinely looking at strategy and markets, customer needs, new technology and new ideas, etc., and not head down in figures and yesterday's operational problems. I have seen all of these - occasionally rather than regularly.

heidi-de-wolf's picture


Do you feel adaptability and job security are two compatible concepts?

To me those two concepts create tension. I do however agree that redundancies are not the way to reduce the workforce, however do know that financial realities may leave companies with little choice. To me it is far more important to consider the ways you reduce your workforce. Redundancies have a detrimental effect on a company's reputation. It is far more importance to support the workforce with career development regardless of whether they are staying or thinking of leaving an organisation.

Organisations who are adaptable have often a much higher rate of contingent workforce, and this will too be the expectation of younger generations for whom technology is an enabler to work more flexibly.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the above,


elaina-venechk's picture

Being adaptable means has three main components…I think about the individual employee since the collective make up the organization.

1. Taking important lessons from the past and respecting why and how they got us to where we are today,
2. Living in the moment to really understand what people need now to excel and
3. Living a life you are passionate about so you can't get enough knowledge about what’s coming in the future.

We can never become too comfortable because we become complacent. We are so lucky to be able to collaborate with people all over the world. If people are happy and inspired they will start to want more. People need to want more to be adaptable, if they don’t want more they are more resistant to change and therefore less adaptable.

Good ideas are common and we all have them, the more able an organization is to foster and environment where people can collaborate and learn about the business they are in the more targeted the ideas will become.

val-green's picture

A private sector management consultant once told me that the place to find innovation and creativity is in the public sector, because to manage in this environment you have no choice but to be adaptable and constantly find new ways to make things happen despite having many different masters, always with conflicting requirements and lots of bureaucracy and rules that go with very high public accountability. My experience in local government at both County and District level; Further Education and the NHS bears that out - and since that statement was made in the early 1980s the need to be adaptable has really snowballed. The problem with all sweeping generalisations is that they fail to recognise that every organisation is different: I don't believe that you can characterise the public sector any differently from the private sector in that respect. Lots of large scale public and private sector organisations will have people at the top of them who appear to have a fear of doing anything outside of the norm. But lots won't. Some of the definition of adaptability has to recognise that however keen you are on creative thinking, successful innovation can only be delivered by finding ways of bringing enough of your stakeholders on board with you. The more complex the organisation and the more stakeholder agendas you have, the more difficult this will be.

claire-mccartney's picture

There have been lots of posts about adaptability and the importance of learning from mistakes and things that go wrong. While lots of organisations talk about this I'm not sure how many actively follow through. One interesting example I have recently come across is the Office of eDiplomacy at the US State Department who have set up a shared online platform called 'Failfaire' which allows individuals to talk about failures and things that have gone wrong and share the lessons learnt from these. So, going forward with failure together.

Systems failure is critical to learn from. (see Joyce Fortune and T Bignall's book). This maybe a way to develop learning and helping people move from established mindsets.
How often are our organizations using critical incident approaches to understanding and moving ways of thinking?

heidi-de-wolf's picture

We are starting to use the Local Government Association Knowledge Hub which is such a platform specifically created for the Public Sector. We share our lessons learned and our successes with others across the Public Sector. It is a free collaboration platform that allow you to set up your own discussion group.

khurshed-dehnugara's picture

Have always loved this idea and struggled to get it off the ground in a couple of places. Any particular aspects of the environment that helped? How did you encourage people to take part? Do you know what percentage got involved? What sustained it beyond the initial interest?

heidi-de-wolf's picture

It is easy to see its potential but less easy to get people to contribute. As a facilitator you have to acknowledge that only 10% actively contribute. I have found that growing groups organically works well. I am also working hard to break down organisational barriers of which fear is a biggie! I think there are plenty lessons for me in seeing the Hackathon at work. Are contributors just natural journalists, or is it a skill that can be taught? Or is it a case of early adopters and others will follow as and when they are convinced of the benefits? It certainly cannot be forced upon people.

claire-mccartney's picture

Sounds good Heidi and invaluable learning I would imagine particularly in the current climate.

kay-abbs's picture

I agree with waht you say Heidi about the decision makers in the change process and the ability for adaptability. From my experience of managing large scale public sector change processes there is often a lack of commitment from the most senior levels to use creative thinking to embed succesful change. It is almost as if there is a fear of doing anything different or outside the norm. I also agree that the role of coaching and mentoring within the workplace is a truly effective way to improve leadership performance. However, this is again dependent on those very senior leader being prepared to self relect and have a willingness to change and adapt themselves as the starting point.

heidi-de-wolf's picture

Organisational adaptability starts with Organisational Structure. If we do not change the structure of the organisations we work for, we will continue to encourage the wrong behaviours. Hierarchies invite the behaviour for which they were set up, namely accountability and decision-making powers at the top. In an ever-changing environment, there needs to be more accountability and with it decision-making powers at the front line.

It is virtually impossible to change an organisations adaptability culture without the physical changes. This is where OD and HR come together, as OD supports the organisational culture and HR support the organisational structure/design, and both are responsible for encouraging a more coachong-style of leadership across the organisation. HR and OD do however need to consider within all this their own leadership style, and move from seeking compliance to seeking commitment and collaboration.

luciano-martinoli's picture

"The best way to predict the future is to create it" Drucker said.
"It's not the customer's job to know what they want." More practically Jobs stated, giving a real example about how to create the future.

And there are millions of examples of the above around the world .

Pursuing adaptability, instead of "creating the future", means deciding to play a no winner game: there will be always a perceived faster changing pace into the environment than your adaptability pace.
Probably the deep root of the current crisis is exactly this: too many companies caring about adaptability instead of creating the future.

its very good to hear all these views. I think the notion of adaptability isn't enough as Luciano may be indicating. Success and survival and sustainability seems to require a more strategic need for agility
Research by EFQM of some 60 leading companies suggested that this was what CEOs wanted.
So we're looking with the excellence model (EFQM) which is about quality there is more of an overall aspiration to excellence, treating an investment in people as an enabler.

doug-shaw's picture

Adaptability springs from having the courage to admit you are wrong. From there - all things are possible.

khurshed-dehnugara's picture

Love this Doug. And would add some personal characteristics after or alongside the admission.

Fearless. The courage to dance at the limits of tolerance, one foot inside - one foot outside of the established order. To overcome the fear of being shunned or thought irrelevant.

Gentle. To be able to return to an open heart, despite the defensive closed postures of others. A care for all you work with, not only those who like you.

Aware. An intelligence that is not solely intellectual, emotional or spiritual; one that is in fact a kind of collective awareness. One that doesn't know, can't predict but that can sense - moment by moment and respond.

Unwavering. To stand in the incomprehension of how to cope; to lament and accept the losses and defeats along the way while not giving up on the ultimate intention

miguel-sacramento_1's picture

Good. Just trying to expand concepts: People with these personal characteristics are more adaptable and may be more productive if working in companies aware that personal mistakes have to be fearless assumed and ideas not related to its core business gently received in order to develop its own adaptability.

Yes, me too. Very powerful words Khurshed. Creating a "hack" around these characteristics is something I'd be really interested in!

khurshed-dehnugara's picture

Thank you, that is kind. Like the idea of a hack around them and no idea how. The descriptions are lifted from a book I'm writing and far from completing. I wonder if you, Heidi, Doug would like to have a look at the early chapters, they may stimulate thoughts on some experiments? Anyone else welcome too.

I'd be very happy to Khurshed! I've been thinking about these characteristics today and one thing that I'm asking myself is do we train people to be this way or remind them that actually we are all this way and for one reason or another have forgotten of what we are capable of. I wonder what difference it would make to training programmes and strategies if it was about remembering our qualities rather than adding them on...

heidi-de-wolf's picture

Kirstie, you are very right to say that this is something lost not something to be taught. That is why a coaching-style of leadership is so vital in today's world. Coaching helps draw out that which is lost in the chaos of overloaded brains. I think training for leaders is silly, as leadership comes to people through life experiences. I'd love to read what you have written Khurshed.

heidi-de-wolf's picture

Beautifully expressed! Thank you for sharing!

doug-shaw's picture

Khurshed you've struck a chord right here, in fact you've struck four. I think this is a lovely way to humanise adaptability.

neil-morrison's picture

In my organisation, I often use the example of the surfer versus the oil tanker. Strategy in the past has been about being the oil tanker, setting out long term plans and persuing them relentlessly in a straight line, the problem being (as we know) that they're damned hard to turn around.

For me, successful organisations are now becoming more like surfers. They look out to the horizon, identify trends (waves) and position themselves quickly to make the most of the oncoming waves and making a thousand small adjustments to make the most of it. Sometimes it doesn't work out and what looks like being a great wave turns out to be a wimper. But agility allows the surfer to turn around and start again within minutes.

Of course, none of this is an indicator my personal ability to actually surf. Which I do with the prowess of a bull in a china shop.......on a surf board.

heidi-de-wolf's picture

Great analogy Neil!!! I enjoy working with analogies and metaphors as it provides a more objective perspective to explore and question.

luciano-martinoli's picture

You don't consider an option completely different than "looking out to the horizon, identify trends (waves) and position themselves quickly to make the most of the oncoming waves": CREATING YOUR FUTURE.

"The best way to predict the future is to create it" Drucker said.
"It's not the customer's job to know what they want." More practically Jobs stated, giving a real example about how to create the future.

And there are millions of examples of the above around the world .

Pursuing adaptability, instead of "creating the future", means deciding to play a no winner game: there will be always a perceived faster pace of change into the environment than your adaptability pace.
Probably the deep root of the current crisis is exactly this: to many companies caring about adaptability instead of creating the future.

neil-morrison's picture

Apologies for sharing a simple analogy, when I could have instead repeated someone else's words.

tom-ban's picture

For me 'strategic adaptability' is the ability of an individual or an organisation to be always one step ahead of the game, finding your way of anticipating what is going to happen next, mainly to avoid surprises and be prepared.
Finding insights and identifying trends, nicely blended with experience, intuition and creativity is probaly a winning formula.
I believe that truly adaptable organisations can do two things equally good and at the same time: professionally manage the performance of today and at the same time prepare itself for the future, individually and collectively. The better you have your current business under control, the more energy you can focus on the next step which includes building the next generation of clients, products, technologies, people, leaders.

keith-gulliver's picture

Adapting takes time, effort and energy and is continuous. Adaptability is about:

* Responding to the needs of customers and clients: winning in the marketplace.

* Making choices: an intentional response to change based on information about the environment - past, present and future.

* Recognising that people adapt not organisations. People must be empowered to: take sensible risks, build new capabilities, experiment, adjust their behaviours, be fearless, learn from their failures and share their experiences with others.

* Removing complexity and simplifying.

kim-spinder's picture

Strategic adaptability is about adding value to the world. When you ask this question every month, and immediately act and start small pilots, you’ll find out by trial and error, which direction you should go in. An organisation is truly adaptable when fail means ‘first attempt in learning’.

guido-rubio-amestoy's picture

Operational agility and strategic adaptability. Interesting. I was wondering... why not trategic agility also? Newspapers are dying (and others died) because they couldn't strategically "adapt" on time to the new 2.0 times. Changes were faster than their capacity to adapt; they didn't see the train coming in front of them. The speed of redefining strategy (value proposition, distribution channels, online strategies, etc) is crucial, but one must not forget... one must ACT fast, with operational agility also. A management guru told me once: "The big fish doesn't eat the small fish. The fast fish eats the slow fish".

chizi-onianwa's picture

A lot of the opinions circling around only apply to human resources and management in the developed world. So what is the strategy for changing the way we change in parts of the world where personnel management is still in practice.

Hi Chizi
Great question. Personally I have limited insight into this area but I was wondering it may help for you to say the types of things going on for you? Maybe if we looked at the context in which you are operating eg types of organisations, employment rights and legislation, political climate, social & environmental challenges?

chizi-onianwa's picture

HI Kirstie. I would try to put into perspective the overall business environment in which professionals in the developing world practice HR, but like many things, its best experienced first hand. Before now, I worked in the HR consultancy sector and like many other sectors of our economy it has been overridden by corruption and many other bad business practices. Consultants take up portfolios with profit making in mind and with little interest in introducing true change where it is needed. Employment law is existent but not enforced and so organisations get away with many illegal employment practices. For example, Some female employees do not enjoy the full maternity leave owed them and can do very little to seek redress in the industrial courts mostly because the system is designed to favor corporate entities and frustrate individual employees.
So my question still remains, how do we change the way we change in light of these challenges and at what point do we even begin to think of strategic adaptability.

sylvana-storey's picture

Adaptability equates to mindset and behaviours. How can we help people to redefine the way organisations work by redefining the way they think and behave that is adaptable to their current context and environment?

Strategic adaptability is understanding your value as an organization, as an idea.

Often what happens is as companies are increasingly concrete (i.e., narrowly defined) about what their value is, they becoming ideologically, procedurally, and systematically attached to being product or service X.

For example, if you look at the media industry, many companies which specialized as newsprint companies couldn't think of themselves as anything other than newsprint companies. If they had focused on their value - delivering and curating relevant, pertinent, interesting content, they probably would have been able to step away from print media more easily.

Strategically adapatability means recognizing that the way you deliver your value has to remain, to the largest extent possible, means-independent.

If we take my previous example, the need for relevant, pertinent, interesting content and curation is not going away any time soon. In other words, it is valuable to people, and probably always will be.

The strategically adaptable company will realize this, and focus on how to continually modernize how they position themselves to deliver value with respect to this need. In other words, monetization / the business model will change as new opportunities to better deliver emerge and old methods lose their grace.

Strategically adapatability is about NOT being married to 'one way' of doing things, but rather having the vision and the capacity to reimagine how to deliver value against the fundamental need(s) the organization addresses (which is probably the reason why the organization exists in the first place).

I think a lot of the question around adaptability either revolves around the traditional leadership team (in the command and control mentality) and their limitations, or from a systems point of view, around leadership in the organisation and the ability of the whole organisation to recognise, embrace and lead change. The management team often seem to have carriage of the strategic change process - which should focus on the business - and distributed leadership within the organisation has input to organisational change - change in the organisation to ensure it supports the business on its path to success. I agree with Kirstie that the emergence of employee engagement indicates a greater interest in the wider question of the business, and not just the organisation. I would caution that I believe that employee engagement is a process, and not just a flat pane on which anything is OK. What I am saying is that as the organisation works through the employee engagement process, their ability to support and embrace change, and thus be part of the organisations adaptive capability increases.

Hi Davin. Interesting point there re flat plane. I can see why that would be a concern. Maybe what we (HR) could look at the factors, considerations, assumptions business leaders may bring up about would makes something ok and something not. Thus allowing an experimental approach within certain parameters. The trick is that the parameters need to support and nuture the experimentation not control it! This may increase the capacity for adaptability and allow HR to make a tangible contribution to both org and broader social benefit?

luciano-martinoli's picture

A strategic adaptable organization is that having tools and process to run the wider possible social process to define company strategy. Indeed only a plan made by who have to implement it will be accomplished.

It is truly adaptable if this organization use these process to define the environment, making it adaptable to the company plans.

I have learnt that adaptable organizations have to cope with a paradox - they have to help employees, who by definition hate risk - or they would have started a new organization themselves - to like risk and to be entrepreneurial. This is a big challenge. So, maybe, one indicator of organizational adaptability is the level of courage of the people in the organization, and above all, the level of courage of the managers. Maybe, we need to measure it and invest in developing it.

eleanor-hartup's picture

I've never thought about it like that Edna, a fascinating viewpoint. Courage and tolerance of risk could certainly be something that is recruited and selected for, and developed, but there will be those who just don't have the stomach for it I guess.

I suppose when I think about strategic adaptability I think about the proverbial box and how to step outside that box and challenge the conventional thinking. But - more than this - I think strategic adaptability is not just a mindset - but also a physical, tangible thing. So it is about the ability to not just think outside of the box - but also to step outside of the box and question the shape of the box. Should it even be a box at all?

But HR has always worked collaboratively - and I believe that this is very much one of its strengths as a profession. And so, if we are going to step outside the box, we need to have the skill, ability and courage to take others with us. We need to be able to identify the other change makers in our world (at all of the various levels) and get them onside and working alongside us. This - for me - will bring true strategic adaptability.

david-zinger's picture

When I think about adaptation I think about Jean Piaget the famous child psychologist who became very interested in children's wrong answers to intelligence tests. Piaget worked with Binet on the IQ test but Piaget was less interested in a static score and how much you knew, he was more interested in how you went about knowing and adapting to your world.

Piaget formulated what he called intelligence in action. This intelligence in action was define as: Adaptation = Assimilation + Accommodation. The child had an understanding of the world and assimilated new information except when it created disequilibrium and this would often trigger accommodation, the child built new schemes or mental structures to understand their world.

This is not much different in organizations when you think about it. We need to take in volumes of information and be able to assimilate efficiently and effectively our knowledge. We often experience disequilibrium, the market or something else is no longer making sense. Can we adapt by changing our understanding, our schemes, our structures. That is not easy but it is mandatory for survival.

Strategic adaptability is thinking this through and being responsive to change. We may not know how we will change but we are open to changing our structures. An adaptable organisation grows and develops a continual enriched understanding of what they are about and how they will change even when they don't know what they will change.

An adaptable organisation recognizes the gravity of the familiar and how this will hold them in place while also embracing a reasonable comfort level with not knowing and disequilibrium. Adaptability organisations are comfortable being ignorant, which means not knowing. You don't have to stay there but ignorance is a great place to start and is often the only authentic place to begin.

So adaptability for organisations when you think about it, is really child's play!

I like the analogy to child's play David! It's been featuring a lot in the research and blogs I've been following especially IDEO's design thinking and various opinions and insights around systems theory. I also resonate with your statement about being comfortable with being ignorant and it inspired and generated some thoughts I'd like to share...
For me when I look around and observe what's going on around me and also inside me ie how I am attempting to make sense of the world the assumption I reach is that the only certainty we have is that the future is one of uncertainty! Adaptability and,as you say, survival will depend on how well we respond to uncertainty not how well we can predict it but "flow" with it.
So where does that place HR? Well for me there are 2 aspects to adaptability -the outer and the inner. In organisation terms it's about 1) how the organisation internally adapts to to changing environment and 2) the role the organisation plays in society's adaptability. The two to me are linked, the organisation exists in and affects society and vice versa. So I see a role for HR in looking through both of those lenses. I'm not talking CSR here or even mainstreaming CSR activities but fundamentally changing the relationship between society and the organisation. And who are our best sources for catalysing that change? Each individual who works in our organisation.
We can read many reports and articles on employee engagement which show a phenomenon emerging that is - people in organisations are searching for more meaning and their role making a positive impact so it would seem on a individual level we've already started to explore the relationship between organisations and society. At the minute it's the brave, the bolshy and the entrepreneurial types (see #socint for the social intrapreneur movement) who are leading the charge but where I think HR can offer a huge advantage is unlocking that exploration in everyone. Everyone has an opinion regardless of who they are and where they sit, that can be explored. In fact, back to your point David, once we did, as children.
And with a legion of explorers, testing their ideas and insights, working to create a better enviromental inside and out may be we can have a stronger chance of adapting and flowing with uncertainty.

stephanie-sharma's picture

Kristie - I really enjoyed your summary here. Thank you for outlining the internal and external lens' through which adaptability must occur and for noting the change that is happening through individuals who seek more meaning in their roles, their lives and that that meaning includes a greater impact on the world, for the positive.
From a cross-generational perspective, the Millennials (13-34 years of age today) will soon be the largest generation, and in the not too distant future, the largest in the workforce. As noted in T. Rainer's research: "9 out of 10 [millennials] believe it is their responsibility to make a difference and 3 out of 4 believe it is their role to serve others". They understand ownership, not relying on preceding generations but making a path now, as well as hopeful that they can collaborate with preceding generations. Imagine the impact on others and our organizational paths if they fulfill these responsibilities for change and impact.