< Back Resources

Being Adaptive – Crucial For Leaders in a VUCA World

I talked about leadership credibility in the previous blog and in this blog post, I will talk about being adaptive.

Being adaptive means having an ability to change to suit different conditions.

I use the term adaptive to describe people or leaders who are flexible — they don't lose their cool when plans change quickly and they are always willing to learn new ways to do things. Being adaptive helps you as a leader to sail along in today's ever-changing world.

Charles Darwin had famously said - “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.”

While he was talking about evolution, the same applies to the business world. An organization that does not respond to changes in the market will not survive in the medium to long term. The organization’s responsiveness in turn depends on the leader’s adaptability.

Why is it critical for leaders to be adaptive?

One of the key roles of a leader is to define the strategy for the organization. The traditional approach to strategy, however, actually assumes a relatively stable and predictable world. The goal of most strategies is to build a lasting competitive advantage by establishing clever market positioning or assembling the right capabilities for making or delivering an offering. Companies undertake periodic strategy reviews and set direction and organizational structure on the basis of an analysis of their industry and some forecast of how it will evolve.

But given the VUCA world that we operate in now, companies and leaders are grappling with issues like:

  • Where does one industry end and another begin?
  • Who all are our competitors?
  • How can we measure market position when we can’t define the market clearly?
  • How can we apply the traditional forecasting and analysis in such an unpredictable environment?
  • When change is so rapid, how can a one-year—or, worse, three-year—planning cycle stay relevant?
  • With so much change happening, how can we pick up the right signals to understand and harness change?

What companies are realizing is that sustainable competitive advantage does not arise exclusively from position, scale, or just technical superiority but it stems from organizational capabilities that foster rapid adaptation. Instead of being really good at doing some particular thing, companies must be really good at learning how to do new things.

What will help companies survive and thrive in this VUCA world is the ability to read and act on signals of change. The ability to experiment rapidly, frequently, and economically—not only with products and services but also with business models, processes, and strategies. Most importantly, the ability of the company and its leaders to unlock their greatest resources—the people who work for them.

So, what is at the core of adaptiveness - this capacity or tendency to adapt?

I believe it is how we think. Our behaviour is a manifestation of our thinking. When faced with unpredictable change, how do you think? Are you afraid of losing what you have? This is called being prevention-focused. Or are you excited by new possibilities of positive outcomes? This is called being promotion-focused.

We tend to be either prevention-focused or promotion-focused.

Prevention-focused people see their goals as responsibilities, and they concentrate on staying safe, protecting what they have, and avoiding mistakes.

Promotion-focused people, on the other hand, see their goals as creating a path for growth or advancement and concentrate on the rewards that will accrue when they achieve them.

So you see, when we are prevention-focused, we’re afraid to make mistakes and this makes us reluctant to step out of our comfort zone and it keeps us stuck.  When faced with change, it makes us focus on the potential obstacles and raise objections such as

  • we’ve never done that
  • we tried it before and it didn’t work
  • that’s not how we do things

All these reactions are reasons we give ourselves for not moving forward. Moreover, how we react to failure says a lot about our approach to the rest of the team. Do we look for who’s responsible for the failure or do we look for the lessons learned from the failure? If we look for who to punish then we are encouraging people to stay safe and not make mistakes – thus making them more prevention-focused.

On the other hand, if we focus on what lessons can we draw out from the experience and then come up with a better solution, we will encourage innovation in the organization. For this to happen, you as a leader also need to be willing to talk about your missteps and the lessons you have learned. By focusing on what opportunities are emerging out of the changing scenario and how to make the most of it, we will be energized to move ahead.

So that brings us to the question of what can help up become promotion-focused.

To my mind what can help us deal with change and uncertainty successfully and become promotion-focused is adaptive thinking.

What is adaptive thinking?

It is the ability to “recognize unexpected situations, quickly consider various possible responses, and decide on the best one.”

So first, it means that you should be able to recognize the signals of change. Also, you need to develop a way of thinking that enables you to pause before you react, consider all possible options, evaluate these options and then choose the best possible way to act, and do all of this very quickly.

If you have well developed adaptive thinking, you will not be overwhelmed by all the information overload that comes with uncertainty and change. You’ll have curiosity about your environment and will be able to make sense of disparate data, see patterns, experiment and deduce the possible direction of the trend.

So how can you develop adaptive thinking?

Firstly, learn to scan your environment constantly, build networks across different domains, understand what’s happening in different markets and regions and be really curious about the emerging developments.

It is no wonder that successful leaders are well read and well networked. They’ve figured out how they learn best and apply that to make the most of the time they set aside for learning. Whether it is through books or podcast or videos or talking to a mentor or coach, they know what works for them and use it to learn rapidly and continuously. They also use their networks to gather information and then connect people across networks thereby increasing their influence. By developing this curiosity and willingness to learn, you will be able to strengthen your ability to gather signals from the market proactively and hence be better prepared to deal with the changes.

The next thing is to develop divergent thinking that will enable you to come up with various options for the same problem. Divergent thinking is the capacity to find relationships between ideas, concepts, and processes that, at first glance, don’t appear to be connected. You can use tools like brainstorming and Edward De Bono’s six thinking hats to practice coming up with multiple out-of-the box ideas. Being in a positive frame of mind can help you get more creative ideas. Also, encourage people around you to think creatively and laterally, thus creating an environment where new and innovative ideas are stimulated.  

The third step is to evaluate the options that you generate to pick the one that you think will give the best outcome. This requires critically examining the underlying assumptions and careful reflection and probing of the problem through many lenses before taking decisive action. Avoid getting prematurely locked into simplistic go/no-go choices. Force yourself to zoom in on the details and zoom out to see the big picture. What can help you further is to invite perspectives from diverse stakeholders. If you use these techniques, you are bound to get better and better at strategic decision-making. It’s important to have patience, courage, and an open mind.

So, to develop an adaptive mindset, simply do these three things regularly – scan your environment, encourage divergent thinking and evaluate options critically. This kind of thinking is a mental muscle that gets stronger as you practice more.

In an increasingly turbulent environment, business models, strategies, and routines can become obsolete quickly and unpredictably. As a leader, you need to be able to experiment quickly and economically. To do this, you need to create an environment that encourages knowledge flow, diversity, autonomy, risk taking, sharing, and flexibility as this is where adaptation thrives. In your organisation, encourage coming together of modular units that freely communicate and recombine according to the situation at hand rather than have permanent silos. Create a culture in which inquiry is valued and mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities – and this needs to start from you before it trickles down to the rest of your organisation. The success of your organisation depends on your ability to be adaptive.

Summary

In an earlier post, I had introduced the CARES model of leadership development that I have designed for preparing leaders for success in this VUCA world. Being Adaptive is an essential part of leadership for the VUCA world.

Being adaptive means having an ability to change to suit different conditions. I use the term adaptive to describe people or leaders who are flexible — they don't lose their cool when plans change quickly and they are always willing to learn new ways to do things. Being adaptive helps you as a leader to sail along in today's ever-changing world.

In an increasingly turbulent environment, business models, strategies, and routines can become obsolete quickly and unpredictably. As a leader, you need to be able to experiment quickly and economically. To do this, you need to create an environment that encourages knowledge flow, diversity, autonomy, risk taking, sharing, and flexibility as this is where adaptation thrives.

The success of your organisation depends on your ability to be adaptive.

To experience a complimentary coaching session to explore how you can develop adaptive thinking, click on the Request Consultation button above.

Related Content