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Adaptability: The Competitive Advantage of Innovative Teams

All team failures are driven by failing to adapt to change.

By Gustavo Razzetti

April 6, 2018

How to liberate the change gene within your team

Change is no longer optional. Most companies are vulnerable to being disrupted — irrelevance is around the corner. The illusion of stability is treacherous.

“All failure is failure to adapt.”— Max McKeown

Blockbuster was a Fortune 500 company before being overthrown by Netflix. The former video rental leader was just the first victim. Through innovative video streaming offering, Netflix turned the whole entertainment industry upside down.

Innovation is a byproduct of a culture of change.

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”— General Eric Shinseki

Transformation has become a buzz word — every senior executive says it’s number one priority. However, most organizations are changing because they have to, not because they want to.

I get many requests from companies that “want to build a culture of innovation.” Unfortunately, some mistakenly believe that a culture of change can be “imposed” and, even worse, it can be built overnight.

Change is created in collaboration with people — it’s an experience, not a process.

People don’t resist change; they simply don’t want to be changed by others. That’s why a culture of change cannot be forced or designed solely by management. Change is a collective experience; it needs to happen from within the organization’s core: the teams.

Are you willing to transform the mindset that’s deeply ingrained in your organization? Not going deep enough can be as dangerous as doing nothing. The good news is that you can start small.

Turn adaptability into a competitive advantage. In other words, prepare your team to become agents of change.

Adaptability Requires A New Mindset

“If you never change your mind, why have one?”— Edward de Bono

Transforming a culture requires new thinking, not new tools.

In his book “Adaptability,” Max McKeown talks about the different levels of adaptability. I adapted his model from 4 to 3, as you can see on the chart below.

The organizations that resist (or avoid) change will soon collapse. The other two types will stay alive, but some will pay a higher price. That’s the critical difference between level 2 and 3 — surviving is a painful experience.

Are you changing because you want or because you have to?

The answer will determine if you will thrive or merely become a level 2 company.

Source: Fearless Culture

Reactive organizations don’t believe in the power of adaptability. They change because they have to. They try to be like Google, rather than finding their own path. Level 2 companies focus their energy on copying what others are doing. However, they forget that Netflix’ innovations are a by-product of a change-driven culture.

Proactive organizations adapt to thrive. Change is part of their DNA. They focus on understanding their flaws and uncovering blind spots and tensions. They don’t adapt to please others but to address real market opportunities. Level 1 companies build a Culture of Change first and transform how they behave second.

Increasing your team’s adaptability requires:

But before, let me show you why Adaptability is not a fad, but a trait that can dramatically improve team performance.

The Benefits of Being Adaptable

“Set patterns, incapable of adaptability, or flexibility, only offer a better cage. The truth is outside of all patterns.” 
― Bruce Lee

Adaptability is the ability to being able to adjust to new conditions. In an uncertain world, this quality makes a hell of a difference.

Adaptive Teams accept reality.

Rather than resisting ‘what’s going on’ or acting in denial, they focus on understanding why things happen the way they do. Especially when events don’t go their way. They use learnings to adjust their strategies, tactics, and behaviors.

Adaptability is becoming hot. 91% of HR directors predicted that the ability of a candidate to deal with change is a major recruitment goal, according to a Right Management survey.

There are five key reasons how adaptability improves team performance.

1. Adaptability increases engagement: Communication plays a crucial role in performance. Sociometric Solutions has identified, after tracking multiple team conversations, that when the energy and participation are high across all members, engagement increases. Adaptive teams are more self-aware: everyone has a turn to speak up, no one dominates the conversation.

2. Adaptability reduces procrastination: Adaptive teams don’t resist reality; they accept it and focus their energy on understanding it. Rather than wasting their time complaining or resisting change, they jump into action.

3. Adaptability increases productivity: Understanding reality gives teams clarity. Adaptive teams pick their battles. They have clear priorities. Also, their focus is not fixed but fluid — it adapts to the changing reality.

4. Adaptability and creativity are correlated: A team that is wired to adapt is more flexible, an essential trait for creativity. Focusing on understanding what’s going on — versus how things should happen — creates positive energy. Fixed teams spend time complaining or justifying what went wrong; adaptive teams turn lessons into action

5. Adaptability increases speed: Not wasting time resisting change or taking care of tasks that are not a priority, allows teams to move faster. The adoption of safe-to-try decisions helps teams be more agile.

So, where do you get started? By igniting the right culture.

1. Nurture A Culture of Abundance

Adaptive teams play like jazz bands.

Unlike Symphony Orchestras, Jazz Bands flirt with uncertainty and mistakes — improvisation is part of their DNA.

Promoting a “Culture of Abundance” requires leaders that are generous and empowering. Ones that treat employees as grown-ups and allow them to decide what’s best for them (instead of paternalistically making that decision on their behalf).

Abundance means that everything is allowed unless explicitly forbidden. Team members collaborate to stay ahead rather than compete with other to stay on top.

How to perform like a jazz band:

Make authority fluid — jazz musicians take turns, everyone has their moment to lead and be center stage.

Embrace your vulnerable side — stop expecting employees to be flawless, encourage them to experiment and learn from their mistakes. Lead by example.

Having fun is how we learn — teams that do things that are anything but repetitive show higher engagement.

Wrong is the new right — to find new answers, you need to experiment first. Jazz musicians improvise and perform at the same time. Get your experimental mind out of the lab.

Read more on how to play like a Jazz Band.

2. Prepare Teams to Drive Change

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” — Leo Tolstoy

Everyone can become a change agent.

It’s time for organizations to stop trying to impose change — prepare and encourage your teams to play an active role transforming your organization.

A Culture of Change is a by-product of teams that understand and thrive in the unexpected, as illustrated below.


Change is personal and starts from within. Self-awareness is not an esoteric concept. It’s one of the most undervalued concepts in management. Organizational psychologist Tara Eurich research has shown that self-awareness is the meta-skill of the 21st century — self-aware people are more successful, more confident, build better relationships, and are more effective leaders.

People’s beliefs and identities affect their interpersonal relationships and accountability. Being unaware of own blind spots is why many teams become dysfunctional.

Team Awareness:

This is the result of individual self-awareness and collective one. It’s about understanding how the team plays, what’s the shared language, rituals, and rules (especially unwritten ones).

The engagement and participation across team members, as well as the commitment to address collective blind spots, are a result of high team awareness.

A Culture of Change:

One that provides a safe space to promote experimentation. Not through nice speeches but via real action.

Team members need first to be trained to become more self-aware but, most importantly, to turn it into a meta-skill. Second, to be coached to apply those insights to increase team awareness to uncover opportunities and drive change. Lastly, once they became agents of change within their own team, they can start spreading their learnings and passion across the broader organization.

Teams need to be prepared and equipped with specific tools and roadmaps to viralize change beyond their own team.

3. The Formula of Adaptability

Earlier, I mentioned that Adaptive Teams are not at war with reality, but accept it. They focus their energy on understanding the ‘why’ rather than complaining so that they can create change (how to react and adapt).

The ability to adapt is not necessarily something that‘s inherited; it can be nurtured. Based on my experience both as a former leader and now coaching teams, Adaptability is the result of Self-awareness, Creativity, and Resilience.

Self-awareness helps understand oneself to avoid personal expectations, beliefs and emotions clouding reality. Creativity is not just the ability to come up with innovative solutions, but also to apply ingenuity to get the team unstuck or finding better ways to play together. Resilience is essential to experiment; most of the times things will go bad — teams need to recover fast and get back on their feet.

Adaptability = Self-awareness + Creativity + Resilience

The following graphic illustrates the mindset shift: how to move from a control-driven to an adaptability-driven mentality.

Psychological Safety is the shared belief that a team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Team members feel free to speak up or share ideas without being afraid of being shut down, ridiculed or even fired. It’s the opposite of a culture of fear.

An Experimental mindset is fundamental to thrive in an uncertain world. You never know what will work or not. Continuously experimenting will help you learn something new that can be applied to improve a solution or to deal with future challenges. Experimentation helps overcome the perfectionist syndrome — the worst enemy of change.

Cultural fitness is about promoting diversity of thinking. Enabling multiple perspectives not only shakes up the culture so that it doesn’t get stuck — it neutralizes group thinking. Culture fitness enriches your team; cultural fit limits its possibilities.

A Learning Mind is the ability to unlearn to understand new realities. Expertise can quickly get in the way of innovation. What you think you know can get you stuck. Embracing a ‘Being ignorant’ approach can be a liberating experience. When you let go of what you know, you become more aware of and can learn new things.

Read more about developing an Adaptive Mindset.

4. Experiment with New Behaviors

If your organization has been wired to prepare, practice and play like an orchestra, it could backfire trying to turn it into a Jazz Band overnight.

When coaching teams, we introduce a couple of new behaviors and see how they resonate. Based on relevance and practicality, the team selects the one that makes more sense to adopt first. Once they start feeling more comfortable with it, we can introduce a new one.

This is what I call Minimum Viable Change (MVC). It’s a small dose of a behavior change that drives early adoption. When you try to change everything you end changing nothing.

An MVC should:

Check out the following examples — start prototyping those behaviors with your team.

To Encourage self-awareness:

Check-in is a powerful tool to understand the mindset that each participant brings to a meeting. Prompted by a simple question (e.g., what’s got your attention?) each individual takes turns to share what their mind is up to. It’s a great way to increase focus by bringing everyone’s mind back to the meeting.

Learn how to practice check-in

To Promote An Experimental Mindset:

Decisions are supposed to move teams forward. The paradox is that most groups get stuck because they can’t find the right decision. To walk away from that perfectionist approach, start using safe-to-try decisions. Ask your team if a specific call can harm the team or move it backward. If the answer is no, move ahead. Use decisions to learn and then course correct. Approach decisions as prototypes, not as definite.

Learn how to adopt safe-to-try decisions

To Encourage Taking Care of Each Other:

No one succeeds alone. Regardless of how self-aware or driven one is, we all need support throughout our journey. An accountability partner increases each team member’s chances to succeed. Uncovering blind spots, tracking goals, calling out BS or simply acting as a sounding board, are some of the benefits of having an Accountability Partner. When every member has someone to count on, the team becomes unbreakable.

Learn how to implement Accountability Partners

Move into Action

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

Adaptability is not a fad — it provides a competitive edge to thrive in change.

Adaptive Teams procrastinate less, are more productive, creative, and faster.

Promote a culture of abundance. Encourage your team to be generous; to create opportunities, not to fight for the crumbs.
Liberate the ‘Change Gene’ within your team. Stop thinking that change should be defined, dictated and managed top-down. Change should happen from within. Let your teams design, lead, and viralize change.
Shift towards an Adaptive Mindset. Is your organization providing Psychological Safety? That’s the foundation to build experimentation, a learning mind, and cultural fitness.
Adaptability has to be nurtured. It’s the result of three traits: Self-awareness + Creativity + Resilience.
Self-awareness is a meta-skill. Coach and prepare your team to increase both self-awareness and team awareness. That’s how you develop teams to help you build a Culture of Change.

Start small. Prototype and experiment with Minimum Viable Changes to help your team practice and master the art of adaptability.

Adapt to thrive, not to survive.

What do you think?



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