Now more than ever the leadership challenge is how to ensure that your organisation, your team has a deep capacity for adaptability. It is ensuring that adaptability is part of your very DNA as you navigate the volatile, uncertain and complex future that is emerging.

In order to develop this vital adaptive capacity, there are certain things that you can do as a leader. You can be intentional in the pursuit of adaptability rather than merely wistfully hoping that ‘it happens’. Smart leaders understand and appreciate this and intentionally go about building this capacity in their organisation and team. It might just be the most important responsibility you have as a leader in these unwelcome circumstances in which we all find ourselves.

Here are four things you can do to help ensure that your team / organisation have adaptive capacity:

1. Diagnose and frame the adaptive challenge

The most common mistake is that adaptive challenges faced are not understood as adaptive challenges. This means that how we tackle them is often wrong and our efforts to solve the problem simply contribute to a greater problem. In our current circumstances, it is important to determine the adaptive challenges you are facing.

Let me explain. As a leader you are basically facing two different types of challenges: technical and adaptive. In a technical challenge the problem is clear, the solution known, and your task is to then apply the solution to the problem. In such cases experience is valuable and it needs to be recognised that technical challenges can be extremely complex in nature.
A simple example of a technical problem would be: I have a headache and go to the doctor. She diagnoses a brain tumour (problem clear) and recommends an operation (known solution) that will solve the problem. The locus of work here is the authority figure (the surgeon and the team) that then applies the solution to the problem. A complex, and difficult situation but one that is known, there is a solution and experience is valuable – a technical problem.

In an adaptive problem the very nature of the problem is unlike anything we have previously encountered. A global pandemic fits that description rather well I would think!

Another way of defining an adaptive challenge is, ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’. The problem itself requires learning and a stepping back and asking, ‘what is really going on here?’ Normally, in our quick-to-action need to fix the world, we rush into solution mode before accurately diagnosing the real problem. In other words, we rush to ‘technical solutions’ when facing an undiagnosed adaptive challenge with fatal results. Having diagnosed the real problem, the solution will require ‘new learning’. There is nothing in the locker (in your experience) that equips you (and your team) to deal with the problem. This is why leaders (and teams) who aren’t at heart ‘learners’ are in trouble when facing adaptive challenges.

Learning is a fundamental requirement at both the diagnostic stage as well as the solution finding stage. Questions such as, ‘what needs to be learnt here? And ‘where can I / we find that learning?’ open the pathway towards a solution.

Finally, all the stakeholders need to be involved – something that is a distinctly different from what happens in a technical challenge. Covid-19 provides ample opportunity for new learning…in fact, it demands it!

2. Decide what to keep, discard and create

The ‘new learning’ that an adaptive challenge demands means that there will need to be things that have worked in the past that will now need to be discarded. This is never easy especially when individuals (or teams) are heavily invested in those particular models or solutions. ‘Letting go’ of things that were held onto with affection is always tough, but it is also necessary in order to create the capacity to find the ‘new solutions’.

In his epic Congressional speech to a nation wrecked by civil war on the 1st of December 1862, President Lincoln said the following: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country”. The keyword being, ‘disenthrall’ – that ability to disengage with that which we hold onto with affection.

Discarding past solutions is exactly this! That said, finding new solutions never means that the past is irrelevant or of no use. To suggest such would be disingenuous. The difficult balance is to know what to keep and what to discard and both sides of this equation are required. There might well also be the need to ‘create’ something and when it comes to creation it brings into focus the importance of experimentation – and cultural permission to do so, the importance of learning from failure and building all this into the organisational DNA.

Building adaptive capacity in your team or organisation requires that you are constantly reviewing what to keep, discard and create as part of the on-going learning challenge. Time and practice make it easier to get this essential element ‘right’ within your organisational culture. In some ways this current context might serve to make what to keep, discard and create a little bit clearer!

3. Reduce dependency on authority

In the traditional hierarchical organisation, there is a clear line and understanding as to how authority works. For many this becomes an unchallenged assumption as to ‘how things work’ and the ‘way we do things’. All too often we experience the frustration of dealing with a system or process in which those you are dealing with don’t have the necessary authority to solve your problem or deal with your situation. Building adaptive capacity requires a deliberate effort to reduce this dependency on authority. It requires stimulating the things that feed self-organisation and individuals taking responsibility for that which confronts them. What this looks like and how it all plays out is more difficult to determine and will, to some extent, depend on the particular situation or set of circumstances. However, adaptive intelligence and building capacity for such requires reducing an over-reliance on authority.

In many ways, Covid-19 has forced our hand on this. Our ability to function effectively with or without authority has been starkly exposed. Some have thrived and other really struggled. How your team has coped will be revealing – you should take note.

The adaptive leadership model makes an important distinction between ‘authority’ and ‘leadership’. The role and function of authority is orientated around order, protection and direction; leadership on the other hand involves mobilising people, interventions and is not dependent on a title or position. Understanding this distinction is to engage in a deeper level of conversation about leadership and what it looks like within your organisation. To release the potential of a reduced dependency on authority, making this distinction and having this conversation will be important. Rather than information flow to authority, make sure that authority flows to where the information sits. This is what true ‘empowerment’ looks like.

4. Create productive tension

Leadership has often been viewed as ‘keeping the peace’, ‘bringing about balance and equilibrium’ and ensuring everyone is comfortably ‘on-board’. Of course, all these notions have their place, but good adaptive leaders understand the need to create disequilibrium. The global pandemic has seemingly taken care of this for us! Adaptive leaders understand that in the quest to develop adaptive capacity, there is the need to intentionally create a productive tension as a means to an end. This is perhaps a little like the pain necessary to get physically fit. Productive tension – and a key word here is ‘productive,’ means that the setting is creating the learning, challenges, thinking and action necessary to develop adaptability.

Smart leaders are looking to do this consistently and as they do so, they are directly contributing to the adaptive capacity building amongst their team / organisation. Creating this ‘productive tension’ could be as simple as deliberately positioning an alternative perspective or viewpoint to the one who is entrenched or the one who provides the underpinning assumption to the decision being acted on. Whilst this isn’t necessarily what you need to be doing right now, maybe asking how you can best use this massive disruption (disequilibrium) is important. It was Winston Churchill who suggested that a crisis should never be wasted.

One final (important) tip:
Adaptive processes essentially mean managing change. The key thing here is for you, the leader, to recognise and understand that you are really managing the ‘sense of loss’ that the respective stakeholders are feeling. Managing this very real loss is vital for any successful change or adaptive process and the failure on the part of the leader to recognise this can often torpedo the entire change / adaptive process.

The reality is that prior to Covid-19, much of our thinking and practice concerning leadership and how we build effective organisations / teams was in need of serious review…in need of a fundamental overhaul. Uninvited and perhaps unwittingly, Covid-19 gives us (you) that opportunity.

Don’t waste it.



 About the author of today’s Tuesday Tip – Keith Coats

Keith Coats believes that there will need to be a fundamental ‘leadership reset’ as a result of Covid-19. What the global pandemic has exposed is the global complexity that we always knew existed, but perhaps underestimated as we went about building our organisations and developing our leaders.

In a word, we will need to fully understand, appreciate and embody adaptability – if we are to build back better and be ready for whatever comes next. Find out more about our team’s latest framework that we’ve developed to help leaders.


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