The four capabilities every leader needs to adapt to rapid change

The four capabilities every leader needs to adapt to rapid change

SHARE INSIGHT
IN BRIEF
Transformation
To transform ourselves and our organisations, we must let go of what we think we know, see things from a different perspective, and adjust our mental models and mindset. It requires us to question deep assumptions, to call out undiscussable issues and to challenge norms.
Adaptive capabilities
This type of leadership is daunting work at any time and requires four critical adaptive capabilities: to diagnose what’s really going on, to mobilise others to work on the issue, to manage yourself in the face of challenges, and to intervene skilfully.
Practices, not position
Adaptive work is a blend of risky effort that demands a commitment to purpose, coupled with optimism that progress is possible. Equipping people to lead in volatile and ambiguous times means understanding leadership is about practices and not position.

By Gregory Evans

A global professional service firm invested heavily in a new knowledge management system, expecting it to multiply the organisation’s capability. The system was launched with much fanfare but was barely used. The partners wondered if the problem was the implementation training. Then a systemic view of the firm revealed that employees were incentivised to compete rather than collaborate.

A leading hospital was inspired by evidence that increasing civility in clinical teams could improve patient outcomes and reduce mortality rates.[1] But despite communicating the evidence and offering training, the hospital leaders struggled to change the behaviour of clinical teams. The leaders said they had no direct authority over senior medical consultants who were often the source of, or chose to tolerate, the problematic behaviour.

A major university faced a budget cut of several hundred million dollars across three years, so needed to reduce costs without compromising research, education and community activities. The university knew that incremental change would not be enough, so it needed to fundamentally redesign its operating model, bring its stakeholders on board, equip its leaders to drive change and support the losses that some stakeholders would face.

These three examples illustrate some hard truths. To transform ourselves and our organisations, we must let go of what we think we know, see things from a different perspective, and adjust our mental models and mindset. It requires us to question deep assumptions, to call out undiscussable issues and to challenge norms. It requires us to be vulnerable on a personal and sometimes a societal level.

Recently we have worked with these three organisations to face adaptive challenges – that is, challenges involving complexity and ambiguity with no easy answers, demanding people and organisations adapt rapidly to survive and thrive.

From this work we have noticed several trends:

  • Adaptive challenges are always systemic. These challenges can be local or global but are always systemic. They involve having to change people’s beliefs and challenge assumptions – such as improving collaboration, innovating services, or developing more inclusive cultures.
  • Adaptive challenges bring risk and opportunity. Increasingly, organisations recognise that the biggest challenges they face are adaptive rather than technical, and that traditional ideas about leadership and authority fail to address those challenges. Having the capability to adapt is a major source of competitive advantage.
  • Leadership is a practice, not a position. Leadership is the practice of mobilising others to make progress on tough challenges – challenges that involve the organisation learning and adapting to changing circumstances. It can be exercised anywhere in the organisation, and it can be learned.
  • Leadership is risky. It can sometimes be dangerous. Leaders put their reputation and credibility on the line to make a difference. There’s a lot at stake; it requires resilience, which we can develop through adversity.
  • Leadership development is changing. Traditional event-driven leadership development is being upgraded and sometimes replaced with learning experiences that more closely integrate learning with real work. New approaches to learning offer real-time experiential learning with case-in-point facilitation.
  • Learning takes effort. Working on adaptive challenges demands learning, and it isn’t easy. Addressing them effectively requires entering a state of discomfort. It demands a willingness to change what we understand about the world and the way we make sense of it.

There are four critical adaptive capabilities for leaders

This type of leadership is daunting work at any time and requires four critical adaptive capabilities.

None of this is easy

Adaptive work is a paradoxical blend of risky effort that demands a relentless commitment to purpose, coupled with optimism that progress is possible. In extreme cases, it is risky work – as national and international politics often demonstrate.

But the good news is that progress is possible, and on a wide scale.

You can see this in action in Journey: Leading Transformation, our work with Defence in Australia. Journey is designed by an international team led by Nous Group and the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM), with input from adaptive leadership experts at Harvard, ANZSOG (Australia and New Zealand School of Government) and UNSW (University of New South Wales).

Journey is highly rated across both uniformed and non-uniformed participants. They report significant capability uplifts, mindset shifts and tangible changes for the better in their workplaces.

As our experience with Journey demonstrates, progress starts with individuals changing the way they manage themselves and mobilise others to collaborate, learn and adapt.

Equipping people to lead in volatile, uncertain and ambiguous times means understanding leadership is about practices and not position. Change starts by keeping the four adaptive capabilities front of mind and responding creatively to the challenge.

Lead on.

 

Get in touch to discuss how we can support your adaptive leadership development.

Connect with Gregory Evans via LinkedIn.

Hear more from Gregory on this topic on a recent episode of the Learning While Working podcast.

Prepared with input from Christie Allison and Tessa Dehring.

Published on 20 June 2023.

 

[1] Arieh Riskin, MD et al. (2015) The Impact of Rudeness on Medical Team Performance: A Randomized Trial

LATEST INSIGHTS