Thinking the Unthinkable logo Thinking the Unthinkable logo

What is an adaptive organisation?

by Chris Langdon

While every organisation is different, common themes on what makes an adaptive organisation have emerged from our extensive research. They apply in both the public and private sector and regardless of location.

Coronavirus has accelerated a long overdue transformation in leadership. Change is now constant. Uncertainty is a given. It will take several years to perfect and roll out new vaccines across the globe.

Old ways of working will never return. We are in for a long haul. The process of adaptation will be continual. Coronavirus may be the first impetus. To survive in the worst recession for decades all organisations need to transform themselves on a continuous basis. But that is only the start. Addressing the urgent imperatives of the climate emergency by the end of this decade will require greater adaptation on a scale that’s hard to imagine.

Change is already happening at warp speed. Ideas that might have seemed crazy in February 2020 are now the “normal” way to operate. Initiatives that would have taken years happen in hours and days.

Now that so many white-collar workers are working from home, hierarchies are flatter. Staff have access to the same information. Used well, Zoom, Microsoft Teams and similar technologies can help shatter silos and break-down hierarchies. Leadership is about checking in, not checking up.

Leaders have to focus more on team collaboration – empowering and engaging staff. Listen to their ideas, foster diversity of thinking, accept that ‘mavericks’ may be wise. To be successful, leaders must be humble and honest that there are no easy answers. Communication is as much about focused listening as it is about messaging.

In an adaptive organisation our data shows that leaders have to:

Accept that change is the given.

Adaptation is the new normal. Move fast and change things. Experiment & learn.

Anticipate changes in your sector - or in other sectors.

Accelerate change – engage, trust and empower staff.

Authority should delegated to the right level – responsibility has to be shared.

In a time of radical uncertainly, organisations that understand the importance of putting a clear social purpose and values at the heart of their strategy are more likely both to keep their staff on board and to retain the confidence and engagement of their stakeholders.

At the strategic level, leaders need to think systemically. Issues are connected and it is now impossible to keep on ‘chopping’ problems into ‘bite-sized’ chunks that can be controlled. The old leadership models taught at most business schools are obsolete.

Organisations are complex interconnected networks. Leaders have to join the dots and understand how risks are connected. ‘Wicked’ problems cannot be solved by one leader however attuned. That is why adaptive leadership is about collaboration and communication.

Organisations have to be fleet-of-foot to seize new opportunities. Those that adapt will survive and potentially thrive. Those that don’t will die.

Leave a comment