Transitioning to Adaptive, Forward-looking Ways-of-Working

In previous posts we talked about the different Aspects of adaptation and what this means for the learning that organisations, communities or individuals might have to do. What follows from this is an obvious question – how do you go about transitioning to the more adaptive and forward-looking ways-of-working needed to harness dynamic change?

The first thing to note is that there are a number of different characteristics of adaptation – these are shown on the chart below and are matched to the Adaptation Aspects previously discussed. In each cell of the matrix is a pen-picture summarising the ways-of-working that apply. Note that the first two columns concern backward-looking behaviours and the last two columns characterise the kind of forward-looking behaviours needed to be adaptive in the face of change (especially given unexpected and unpredictable change).


So, if you want to transition from backward-looking to forward-looking ways of working can that be done in one go? Possibly. We like to use the steam engines to iPods analogy. The technology that was used to make steam engines and bicycles can’t be used to make iPods and enable Facebook social networking. The possibilities offered by steam engines and bicycles are completely different from those available with iPods and Facebook and can only be achieved by transformation. More importantly for practice, steam engineers (in a Facebook world) would have no way of understanding what was going on in a modern context.

Indeed, the consequence of this for practice goes further than just individual capabilities. If you specify and evaluate projects and people in steam-engineering terms, you are only going to get more steam engineers and steam engines – transformation will be impossible in this case. Also, even when people are open to change they still want step-by-step certainty, but often there is no ‘fully connected graph’ between here and there – there has to be a ‘jump’ via some other modality / dimension (eg, via the development of software in the iPods example above). That, IMHO, is what true adaptation is about – having the agility (see below) to make the jump.

So what are the options for the ways in which one might transition / transform? The chart below shows four basic options.

a range of adaptive-transitions

You can of course take Option A and do nothing – that might be appropriate to your context if it is stable and predictable. Or, in an organisation which is risk-averse, people might take Option B and just ‘tinker round the edges’ – but that will keep things within the current organisational behaviours.

To really start adapting Option C is needed. Here people are literally ‘pushing the boundaries’ and changing the organisational principles (eg, permissions, authorities, incentives and so on – see p117 of Complexity Demystified for more on this).

But sometimes, as in the steam-engines to iPods example, things just have to transform and Option D must be taken – really ‘thinking outside the box’. You might be able to make a proof-of-concept transition first which is then an enabler for the full transformation. What might this involve? What are the factors, tensions and modifiers that might need to be traded off? There is a full list from p145 onwards of the Complexity Demystified book.

Go on – make the jump – be different by choice!

By the way – concerning agility, here are a set of characteristics which together lead to overall ‘Agility‘ (the ability to sustain appropriate change – purposefully and dynamically in relation to some context – over time). They are all ‘inter-twingled’ enablers of each other and the adaptation we have been discussing here is just one of them:

  1. Resilience: the ability to recover from or adjust to misfortune, damage, or a destabilising perturbations in the environment;
  2. Robustness: the ability to maintain effectiveness across a range of tasks, situations, and conditions;
  3. Responsiveness: the ability to react to a change in the environment in a timely manner (ie, in a relevant timescale, not just quickly);
  4. Flexibility: the ability to employ multiple ways to succeed and having the capacity to move seamlessly between them;
  5. Innovation: the ability to consider possible futures, do new things and the ability to do old things in new ways; and
  6. Adaptation: the ability to change ways-of-working; the ability to change the ‘organisation’ / community; ability to change necessary capabilities and the ability to ‘morph’ as needed.

Actually, in the real world, as they are all inter-twingled it makes no sense to try to analytically separate them out into distinct categories in practice.

(c) 2012 The abaci Partnership LLP.

This entry was posted in Adaptation, Agility, Appropriateness, Change, Influence, Learning, Opportunities, Organisational forms, Possibilities, Practice, Purposeful. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Transitioning to Adaptive, Forward-looking Ways-of-Working

  1. Pingback: Effective Adaptation involves ‘Quadruple-Loop Learning’ | Harnessing Dynamic Change

  2. Pingback: Why are ‘unintended consequences’ inevitable? | Harnessing Dynamic Change

  3. Pingback: Applying Complexity Thinking to the Real World | Harnessing Dynamic Change

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