I have worked with business leaders from several global companies on leadership and organizational challenges at the Haas Center for Executive Education during the last six months; among them, a life science company experiencing hyper-growth; a leading software company pioneering innovative approaches to adapt to the new realities of the “cloud”, a European energy company, adjusting to low oil prices, and a pioneering tech company preparing for its next phase of growth. Each faces its own unique challenges, but they all have one common wish: how to develop a flexible organizational and leadership DNA to thrive in a world of constant change.
As it happens, I have had the good fortune of working on this topic, as a researcher, writer, executive educator and advisor for the past 30 years. I have examined organizational architectures, team practices and leadership skills. My colleague, Stuart Evans from Carnegie Mellon, and I have distilled dynamic practices that enable leaders to succeed in a world of constant change. Our work has taken us to young start-ups, growing adolescents and established corporations, not only in Silicon Valley, but also in different parts of the world.
We have observed 3 modes of adaptation in practice: Deliberate adaptation, as is the case with disruptive innovators; forced adaptation, as is most commonly observed in crisis situations; and accidental adaptation, when timing and luck are critical determinants of success.
In today’s fluid world, deliberate adaptation is a prized capability. It enables business leaders and knowledge workers to be the drivers of their own destiny. But what are the tools that enable leaders to engage in deliberate adaptation? We have coined the umbrella term “super-flexibility” to describe the capacity to deliberately adapt to new realities. In a nutshell, super-flexibility integrates several themes that facilitate adaptation:
- Agility, the ability to be fast and move quickly to seize opportunities or side-step threats
- Versatility, the ability to wear different hats and switch gears depending on the context and the situation
- Hedging, the ability to plan ahead, hedge your bets, and think through different contingencies and scenarios
- Robustness, the ability to have clear intentions, absorb shocks, be persistent, and remain viable
- Resilience, the ability to bounce back and recover from setbacks
These adaptive qualities are not just relevant for Silicon Valley innovators and entrepreneurs; they are critical for business leaders whose enterprises are undergoing a massive digital transformation. As one global leader commented: “we are playing a new game, but using old rules. We need new ideas and fresh thinking that can help us lead in a world where change is the only constant.” This reminds me of Charles Darwin’s famous quote: “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent that survive, but the most adaptable.”