The highly-regarded Altimeter Group has asked on their website, for comments about Adaptive Organizations. Let’s take a look at what this means, and why developing greater adaptive capacity is important for organizations.
Adaptive means able to change in response to changes in our environment. Charles Darwin noted that those most likely to survive, would be those most able to respond to changes in their environment. Our lived experience teaches us how certain things typically work in our world. We develop beliefs and values both personally, and collectively. Our beliefs and knowledge give us a set of expectations about how the world around us will act into the future. But even familiar routines and processes vary over time. If we get a flat tire on the way to work, we usually know what to do. Our knowledge and understanding let us adapt to these comparatively small variations in our daily experience.
But sometimes,the degree of difference between how we expect things to work, and what actually happens, is significant. The limits of our understanding, knowledge, and beliefs may be pushed or exceeded. Things in our world may be permanently changed, and we are challenged to respond. Being rather autonomous beings, we humans also have the capacity to implement significant change in our lives all by ourselves. Did anyone tell Picasso to have a cubist period, a blue period, a rose period, in his painting? Sometimes we create the significant degrees of difference all by ourselves, in order to renew our creativity, and our ability to shape the environment that is simultaneously shaping us. A small and subtle perception of difference and opportunity in our environment can inspire significant change.
Organization typically refers to a form of collective endeavor. There are varying degrees of structure among organizations, and varying ways that organizations interact with, and react to their environments. Corporations evolve over time to have highly-ordered structures of authority, information flow, and activity. Historically, armies had very specific hierarchies of command, and strict rules of engagement. Organizations interact with their environments just as we do individually. Change can come in the form of incremental innovations, or the sudden seismic shift of a new and disruptive technology. Ralph Stacey of the University of Hertfordshire in England, has a different way of defining organizations. Drawing on his understanding of human communication and interaction, Stacey says organizations are the iterated patterning of complex responsive processes in our human relating. In other words, the traditional ways that we tend to think of an organization as having an identity or culture or even intention of its own, are wrong in Stacey’s view. Ralph says that the organization is all of us communicating together. Meaning and knowledge in Stacey’s world, emerge between and among us more than in us.
Growing Adaptive Organization capacity is critical as the pace of significant disruptive change and uncertainty accelerate in the world. How we respond to changes around us directly affects our ability to survive and thrive. How many ways do we know to solve a problem? How quickly can we change when we have to? Adaptive dynamics occur in several dimensions:
Place: Where are the sources of change? Fundamentally, is the impetus outside of us or the organization, or from within?
Time: How quickly can we process our experience of the significantly different, and how quickly can we try new options?
Learning: How well are we able to take in information about what is happening around us, and use it to build new knowledge, understanding, and capability?
Connections: How well are we connected to a diverse group who are both able to scan our changing environment, and think together about our response?
The two organizations I wold cite here as examples of adaptive capacity, hardly seem related. Brazil’s Semco may be the most radically-organized business in the world. No titles, no specific hierarchy. People encouraged to tinker and experiment with new lines of business. The U. S. Army retains rank, titles,and rules of engagement. But at the same time, each soldier is taught to be aware, adaptive, and in constant communication with his or her peers. Both Semco and the Army operate from a set of core values, core operating practices, and a shared aligned understanding of vision and objectives.
Perhaps the epitome of adaptive capacity is the martial arts master. Balanced yet fully focused in their awareness. Almost immediate processing of whatever experience comes at them. Flexible and creative in their patterns of response. The truly Adaptive Organization, like the martial arts master, enters what Ralph Stacey calls “the living present” and stands confident and ready for the next change around them.