It’s true! We live in a hyper-paced, deeply interconnected world of unrelenting change where survival depends on an organization’s ability to adapt and transform. Moreover, there is precious little time to consider the proposition. Change or die? The reality is that in these turbulent times certain companies will thrive and grow, while others will wither on the vine. Examples of formerly powerful brands abound. Consider these: Blockbuster, Toys “R” Us, MCI Worldcom, Xerox, Kodak, Arthur Anderson, Bear Sterns, and Enron, to name but a few.

Developing adaptive, change-ready organizations is not easy, but there is good news: in our richly connected and often chaotic environments organizations can thrive and prosper by learning how to harness the winds of change. It requires a particular kind of leadership style and a certain type of organizational culture, but companies bold enough to promote leadership at all levels, and to support fail-safe and diverse workplace environments, can learn to be creative and innovative in the face of continuously changing conditions.

Here are three fundamental characteristics of an adaptive organization:

  • Fostering people-focused values and culture with a strong appreciation for hearing diverse voices;
  • Facilitating co-creation through a shared leadership model based on leveraging expertise throughout the organization;
  • Creating multiple feedback loops within the internal and external environments that are used to collect and assess data to fuel change.

How do you create an adaptive organization that embodies these characteristics? Though change itself is non-linear, here are five sequential actions you can take toward building a highly adaptive and change-ready organization:

  • Dispense with control: Jettison the idea that tight control is necessary or even possible. Transformation involves people, and people are far too complex to control. A tightly controlled organization is not the desired state, truly!
  • Accept ambiguity and experimentation: Dispel the belief that carefully planned, incremental steps to change implementation are required. Change is non-linear, and it is most sustainable via small experimental steps happening simultaneously at multiple levels of the organization. In fact, change is a messy business, and messy (total mayhem excluded) is exactly how it should be.
  • Create a Resource Leveraging Team (RLT): Select a diverse team of individuals who have the task of planning an all-staff strategy alignment meeting that brings everyone in the organization together to review, revise, or develop the company’s strategic platform (there are many creative ways this can be done no matter the company’s size (see Large Group Meetings). The planning team should be a diverse group that includes representatives from different levels of the organization, including executive leadership and, if applicable, board members.
  • Ensure the three characteristics of an adaptive organization: Plan the meeting with intent to understand and realize the three characteristics of an adaptive organization. As noted, this is achieved by establishing people-focused values and culture, co-creation through shared leadership, and multiple feedback loops to guide change. Remember that developing these qualities in an organization will take time and effort, but they are critical to adaptive capability and organization’s success.
  • Conduct the RLT’s all–member strategy alignment meeting: The big event! This meeting should include internal and external stakeholders and be planned using activities that are designed to reflect all voices from all levels of the organization (see Liberating Structures). The process is akin to beginning a strategic planning initiative by co-developing the company’s vision, mission, values, and goals. However, this important meeting’s primary goal is not strategic planning, it is to generate ideas, achieve alignment, and develop relationships. At it’s core, this is leadership creating adaptive capacity.

The sequential action items listed above are designed to help develop an organizational culture where everyone in the company enthusiastically supports and is committed to the firm’s purpose, and each individual has a role to play in achieving the company’s vision and mission. Most importantly, all members and stakeholders feel genuinely valued and know that they have the opportunity to contribute in constructive ways to the organization’s success.

A Word on Today’s New-Era Leadership

Leadership suited to today’s Information Age requires the ability to trust by investing in staff both professionally and emotionally, while simultaneously promoting good ethics and high quality values. To achieve an adaptive, change-ready organization requires leaders who are courageous enough to operate differently from the more traditional style of the industrial era. New-era leaders are ready and willing to promote and to share leadership as the situation dictates. In the modern company there are both formal and informal leaders. Along with an eye toward building adaptive capacity, enabling employees, and leveraging organizational expertise, formal leaders also play an important results-focused, administrative function. In other words, they enable adaptive capacity while managing the organization’s business results. Informal leaders are the lifeblood of the organization; they are employees at all levels of the firm who can easily move in and out of a leadership role according to the situation and the expertise required.

In its essence, leadership today demands that everyone in the organization be willing to serve as a leader according to their expertise, and it requires a readiness to sacrifice personal gain for the sake of the greater good of the firm. Most importantly, formal leaders suited to the modern era inspire others by demonstrating the organization’s values and by serving as models for shared leadership and co-creation. You can do this!

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