Learning to Adapt

learning to adpat
Adaptability-the wherewithal to change (or be changed) to fit new circumstances – is a crucial skill for leaders. The gap between relevance and obsolescence has the potential to grow wider every day in most organisations. If they are to stay relevant and succeed, then they must adapt to change, but they must do so before the change becomes something that can’t be avoided. Panic or a knee-jerk reaction to any change is not adaption at all.

All organisations of any size need to anticipate new directions from whatever source - even if some actions are forced or are obligatory. Adaptation involves planning and is an awareness of what’s happening in the world, no matter how big that ‘world’ is - internally with employees, externally with stakeholders or customers and globally with emerging trends or markets. All need attention, all need anticipation, and all may demand innovation and change. That is the essence of adaptation.

Organisations that fail to adapt to emerging threats do so because they:

a) lack the skill and resource to do so, 
b) have no clue how to proceed or 
c) consider the challenge/threat immaterial or irrelevant. 

The organisations that adapt best are those with leaders who are happy to accept a certain amount of failure. There’s a difference between accepting failure and welcoming it. To accept failure is to forego progress and to give up. To welcome failure, however, is to acknowledge the temporary state that exists and see the interim as a stepping-stone towards learning and then, hopefully, success. Many organisations find the stepping stone process too risky and too expensive. That can be true of course, but without experimenting and with some failures, success is rarely going to happen.

Many organisations claim to welcome failure as a part of their culture, but the incentives in place indicate otherwise. People are almost begged not to fail, and managers (and therefore direct reports) see failure as defeat. Invariably these organisations tend not to accept new ideas, have within them people who see growth as tiresome,  who view change as something to be avoided and who regard new services or products with suspicion.

The best organisations have consistent communication – not just well-constructed, quality and clear communication. Without consistent communication to ensure that a division, section, unit or whole organisation is on the right path, an illusion of security or incorrect direction can be wrongly created simply because people aren’t aware of things so that when bad news eventually hits home, it’s a shock. 

Here’s another example of non-consistency of communications. It takes an average of fifteen years (and possibly the same number of billions of dollars) to move a major drug from discovery and testing to market and distribution. So, the pharmaceutical company’s performance today may have little to do with its successes from the past. However, management tends to attribute the company’s high-performance today to their strategies and leadership, which is not necessarily the case. 

If there aren’t enough communication touch points in an organisation or process employees and indeed investors are led to the wrong assumptions. That, in turn, leads to knee-jerk reactions if suddenly something goes wrong today when the organisation was relying on past success. Adaptation is no longer an option.

There are challenges posed by the speed of change and globalisation. Businesses usually want to stride ahead of their competition and believe that working harder and faster is the way to go. There are occasional blips in this argument. For example, car hire firm Avis made a virtue of being number 2 to Hertz by using an extremely successful and inspired ad campaign around the strapline, ‘When you’re only No. 2, you try harder.’ That worked internally as well as externally. 

Working effectively and efficiently is important, but if you’re selling apples in a market geared towards oranges, it doesn’t matter how effective or how fast you’re selling because nobody wants to buy. Working smarter is therefore important. The only way organisations get smarter is by reflecting on both failures and successes and sharing the insights with employees – obviously as appropriate. This way, front line employees have the context of senior leaders, thus enabling their ability to understand the bigger picture or maybe any of the picture and, importantly, things that customers expect them to know. That’s the way to adapt. Think of the times you’ve gone into a bank, a restaurant or indeed any retail outlet to discover that the person in front of you can’t answer any of your questions.

Equally, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the pressure of having to win - and the consequences of losing. Good organisations focusing on the process of achieving their goals don’t let the goals define them; they define their goals. It’s also easy to attribute success to hard work and failure to bad luck, but adaptable organisations foster a culture of both success and failure is met with favour. If failure is always regarded with derision and discipline, then blame takes hold. Once blame takes root, it’s hard to shift, and people don’t then give their best because they become fearful.

Another factor that affects adapting to circumstances before the circumstances become impossible to manage properly is that of ego. People at any level need to have a mindset where making teamwork work becomes a reality, not just words. 

Ego is a completely valueless source of decision-making. To know that results could be made and progress could be achieved but they’re not, simply because of one individual’s need to feel important is a personal (and organisational) handicap. 

Unfortunately, this happens far too frequently. Adaptable organisations ensure that ego is parked and sanctions for breach are severe. It is important however to be aware that accountable decisions are not democratic in any organisation and that’s fine. That doesn’t mean that autocracy should rule, but it does mean that once all the information is available, then someone has to be accountable for ‘pressing a button’. It’s the way of the world, and any variation leads to chaos, not freedom or adaptability.

The Economist Intelligence Unit conducted research which showed that the top three leadership qualities important over the next few years include: the ability to motivate staff, the ability to work well across cultures and the ability to facilitate change. The least important was technical expertise and ‘bringing in the numbers’. That doesn’t mean that the latter two aren’t important of course but what is interesting is what three issues are the prime concerns.

Successful leaders are willing to move out of their comfort zone and learn about new aspects of the business or organisation they are leading. They adapt to changing opportunities and surroundings. They don’t cling to the notion that ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ and will embrace a chance to do things differently. An adaptive approach is not without risk of course, but embracing failure and blame is all about risk. It doesn’t mean abandoning what has worked well in the past - that would be pointless - but it does mean moving away from whatever didn’t work.

So, if you’re a leader before you issue instructions or hand out tasks, take the time to think through what you want to achieve. What’s the intent behind the work you want to be done? What is the outcome you want? Once you’ve identified the answers to these questions, make sure your people understand what is expected of them. 
Always realise that you may not be the smartest person in the room to solve a particular issue. Therefore, enter any team interaction with a growth mindset, open to other points of view and recognising that others may know something you don’t. Respect your team members as experts in their positions and that you trust them to bring the right (or their best) ideas to the table as long as they have a rational or proof. Get people to speak up. Never allow rudeness, arrogance or insubordination though, and you mustn’t ever practice these.  

People are driven by self-interest, so changes made to work structures/hours/roles will never be favoured by everyone, and that’s fine. So you don’t need to have the answer right away but have the mindset that allows for the fact that a solution can be found. When presented with an issue, don’t react, respond. Ask questions that lead your team to solutions. Future leaders, as you identify problems, don’t simply bring them to your boss. Think about a potential solution (with a rationale and proof). 
Here’s a good test of adaptability. If you left your job tomorrow, what would your successor do to improve things? When you’ve answered that, consider making those changes yourself.

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