Moving from Tactical Adaptability to Strategic Adaptability – and why it matters: 6 tips to consider as you make the move.

Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo, once said that “Every morning you have got to wake up with a healthy fear that the world is changing, and a conviction that, to win, you have to change faster and be more agile than anyone else“.

There is not one business leader I speak to who doesn’t agree with that sentiment. The pressure to ‘keep up’ is putting an intolerable strain on many a business model and all that is inherent with that model – the structures, procedures, policies, strategies and in most cases, the entire underpinning culture of the organisation.

In response to the ‘external pace of change’ and to get around the rigid and inhibiting nature of silos within the organisation, leadership often creates a team with the freedom to practice ‘tactical adaptability’. They are freed up to take quick decisions and by-pass some of the ponderous bureaucratic requirements restricting others within the same organisation. In effect it is a ‘special forces task team’ – one designed and freed to be agile, nimble, equipped and trained to get in behind ‘enemy lines’ and accomplish the mission.

The problem is that tactical adaptability does not translate to strategic adaptability across the entire organisation or group. Sooner or later a team that is empowered to be tactically adaptive hits a ceiling. This was the startling insight of US General Stanley McChrystal, head of the Joint Special Operations Task Force in Iraq: tactically adaptive teams within a structure that isn’t itself adaptable, are doomed to failure. Strategic adaptability is not the same as tactical adaptability and if organisations are to thrive into the future, they will need both.

In short, this means rethinking the entire organisation. The old blueprint no longer works…or at least, no longer works as well as it once did! This reality is unavoidable for any large organisation and yet, I am constantly surprised by how many (executive and senior leaders) bulk at the real work required to be ‘future-fit’. Knowing and doing are two very different things and when it comes to topics such as agility, nimbleness and adaptability, the gap is an ever-widening chasm, one bridged by the rhetoric but not by definitive actions or behaviour.

Leaders are required to rethink their business assumptions, models and strategies that have served them so well…at least that is, up until now! The willingness to do this difficult work is the very essence of leadership in the 21st Century; it is the definitional task of contemporary leadership. Creating pockets of adaptive capacity within the organisation is a good start but such initiatives will fall short if this doesn’t translate into a broader strategic adaptability. Accomplishing this broader strategic adaptability will require fundamental changes to just about everything that makes up the organisation. Without leaders ensuring this happens, the impact of the tactical adaptability will be curtailed and although some battles might be won, the war will be lost.

In moving from ‘tactical adaptability’ to ‘strategic adaptability’ here would be six things to consider:

Make sure you have your ‘why’ sorted before you start on the ‘what’ and ‘how’. Before you start the work, step back and ensure that you know why you are doing this (work). What you do and how you do it will come under extreme pressure and will be challenged, questioned and resisted. In such times it is your sense of the why that holds you to the course and gives you the courage to keep at it.

The outcome (of the change) is not certain, but the same cannot be said for maintaining the status quo. There will be those ‘wanting proof of concept’ that what is being done will succeed. These will usually be the accountants and engineers whose default mindset and training invariable goes to certainty and clarity of outcome. Of course, I am generalising here but have sufficient first-hand experience of conversations within organisations where these mindsets dominate, to know that this is simply a reality.

Satisfying those who want certainty is an impossible job as there can be no certainty. Learning to live (and thrive) in a context of change and uncertainty is a core part of what it means to be ‘adaptively intelligent’. ‘Anything hard is not without risk’ is a mantra by which Alex Honnold, the free solo climber (climbing without ropes) who scaled the 3,200’ El Capitan in Yosemite National Park in 2017, lives by. It is a salient point to remember if one is to move an organisation towards being strategically adaptive.

Know what needs to be unpicked and what needs to be blown-up. Trying to ‘unpick’ everything will mean you never get the work done; blowing-up everything may work, but is an extremely risky and desperate measure that is best left as a ‘last resort’. Unpicking and blowing-up are different tasks that require different skill-sets. You will need both but remember, beyond the work of unstitching and blowing-up is the task of re-stitching and rebuilding. That is where your focus needs to be and where your purpose resides.

Not everybody will be able (or want) to keep up. Your task is to ensure they do (keep up). The ‘leave no one behind’ mantra is certainly the aim but in doing this work (in the theatre of business), it’s unlikely that it will materialise. Give everyone the choice but when some don’t keep pace (or are unwilling to keep pace) with the changes needed, tough decisions will need to be made.

Scaling adaptability is easier said than done – but this is the challenge. There can be no blueprint or formula as to how to do this work. The extent of the scaling, the sector in which you find yourself, the culture of the business – factors external and internal, all make this work unique. Each has to find their own way. Chinese appliance manufacturers, Haier, have shown however that scaling adaptability is possible for large enterprises. The November / December 2018 Harvard Business Review catalogues their amazing story; it is a story that gives hope to all with similar ambitions.

Know the difference between ‘leadership’ and ‘authority’ and be able to differentiate between ‘technical challenges’ and ‘adaptive challenges’. These are the fundamental pillars of Ronald Heifetz’s excellent and robust leadership framework / theory – Adaptive Leadership. Being able to distinguish between these terms will help ensure that you don’t lose your way in doing this essential work of achieving strategic adaptability; understanding the differences will prove to be beacons in the what promises to be misty and confusing terrain.

So, I have (intentionally) stopped short of detailing some of the work I have suggested is required (especially for #6 above). This is work you (and your team) need to grapple with and do for yourselves. By delving deeper into the resources that I am about to suggest is where you will ‘find your why’.

Meg Wheatley suggests that ‘thinking is the place where all intelligent action starts’ – this then is an invitation to think (understand) before moving to ensure that your organisation is strategically adaptive. Perhaps the purpose of this short article is merely to point the way, to help create the political will to be able to say, when it comes to strategic adaptability, “we are embarked”.

And, as the intrepid explorers of old knew in their belly, once embarked, there was simply no going back!

Enjoy the journey.

(Inspiring) Resources for the journey: 4 ‘must read’ books

One further ‘tip’: Get your whole team reading them – start a Book Club to ensure the work is done and the message engaged.

The world needs a new leadership response to a global context of change, complexity and uncertainty. Leadership expert (and author of today’s Tuesday Tip), Keith Coats is passionate about helping audiences around the world to understand what this response looks like and to equip leaders with the tools needed to respond to this changing context.

Keith’s research and global experience of over 20 years has helped him identify the key-defining factors of a successful leader in the 21st century as the ability to learn, grow and be adaptable. It is his great privilege to help leaders access new frameworks and thinking in order to successfully lead into the future. Chat with us if you’de like to explore how he could help your team prepare for the future.

Lastly – our 2019 updated edition of Leading in a Changing World, co-authored by Graeme and Keith is currently on its final edit before being sent to print (and Kindle). We suggest adding this to the list above, even if Keith’s modesty stopped him from including it in his list of recommended resources above.

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