Adapt or Don’t. Succeed or Fail.

Adaptation as Success

This idea of adaptation seems to be the zeitgeist, the trend. So, with that in mind, if we were going to make a case for adaptation as success, what importance would it have for those who want to lead themselves and others successfully?

This was a question I recently asked of Success iD podcast guest, Chris Nel, leadership coach and former British Army Officer. His response to my first question, and other helpful insights, form the basis of this article (A link to the podcast can be found at the end of this piece.) In short, Chris believes that other needs will come and go as the market changes, or as the client requirements change, but being adaptive, having the ability to recognise what needs to change and then to go ahead and change, is the only sustainable competitive advantage.

It should be the legacy of every leadership team to build the ability to change the organisation. After all, the only constant is change.

Overwhelmed and underprepared

Increasingly people are starting to feel overwhelmed by the rate of disruption around them. And so it’s a much easier sell the idea of adaptation now than it was 10 or 15 years ago.

We recognise that as coaches. People experience change fatigue but that is their constant state and that of the organisations they work for. It is re-rating, re-sizing, re-shaping, re-locating, all sorts of different changes that come along, but at such a pace people almost can’t stop to make sense of it all before they’re in the next round of changes.

The Robert Keegan book ‘In over our heads’ captured that feeling. That’s why we’ve got to rewire our brains if we’re going to survive in this new jungle. That’s why coaching is really getting some traction and this idea of adaptive capability is really striking a chord with people.

What is adaptive capablitity?

So, what does adaptive capability looks like and what are its constituent parts?

Nel feels adaptive capability is the organisation’s capacity to making a timely response to the changes in their competitive environment. Can they change quickly enough to survive and thrive or will they be overwhelmed by the competitive forces? This is true at an individual level too.

Its constituent parts are what he and his colleagues at Quest Leadership, describe as the three legged stool.

  • Leadership
  • Awareness and Agreement
  • Learning.

Leadership gets a lot of attention. But using leadership to raise awareness and gain agreement are key here. Leaders can help to cultivate people’s aptitude for change by getting inside the emotional side of people’s brains and make them understand why the change is important to them and secure consent to move ahead together.

Can we learn to be more adaptive?

Do some people have greater propensity for adaptability than others? Is it nature or nurture?

The British army dubbed Nel as a high functioning dyslexic, which got him questioning whether he had trouble processing and memorising things. Filling his brain with everything I needed to learn was horrifying.

Then, being told he didn’t have to was really freeing. He viewed his capabilities quite differently and learned to see himself in a new light.

People who have struggled with things that have surprised them in life, things that have gone wrong, people who have struggled with the system, they’re all interesting to look at from an adaptability perspective.

Seniority is a key factor. If you have seniority you have the power to enforce your point of view (See John Higgins podcast on Speaking up as Success.) People will do what a leader says, which is quite seductive in terms of getting things done quickly. Age is another key factor. The more you’ve experienced the more you tend to fall back on the experiences you’ve had rather than search for new solutions.

This is known as scenario fulfilment – when we rely on what has a high degree of certainty in our minds as it makes us feel we can cope with the situation. You need to break that cycle of automatic thinking, automatic decision making, to give you the break between the input and whatever you decide is output. Make the move from react to respond.

People should try and re-frame how they see themselves, give themselves permission to be environment creators rather than solution providers. It’s the Jim Collins Level 5 leadership thought about humility and drive. The humility to accept that the way we are leading is part of the problem. When teams start to get that, that we say we haven’t got the answer and we need to work it out, then we start to make some progress.

You can find out more about Chris here Quest Leadership

You can listen to the whole podcast on these platforms:




Glenn P Wallis have been developing world class leaders and teams for nearly 20 years. When you need help developing your internal capability, please contact us here. We look forward to helping you.