6 Ways To Improve Your AdaptAbility

6 Ways To Improve Your AdaptAbility

By Glenn A Williams

Charles Darwin, a biologist best known for his contributions to evolution, came across the Platypus on one of his expeditions. Noting that the animal had similarities to the European water-rat, Darwin saw that its duck-bill made it unique. Over time, Darwin’s Platypus observations contributed to the development of his theory that evolution occurs by adapting to an environment. But, what’s even more interesting is this theory, although biological, is also applicable to business.

What’s AdaptAbility?

Here’s the deal: AdaptAbility is your ‘ability to adapt’ to change as opportunities and threats present themselves. In nature there are three types of adaptation – structural, physiological, and behavioural.

  1. Structural – Features adapt to increase chances of existence.

  2. Physiological – Processes adapt to aid sustainability.

  3. Behavioural – Responses adapt to help survival.

So, returning our focus to the Platypus, in a structural sense, this creature developed a duck-like bill that picks up electric currents, so it can hunt underwater and keep its eyes, ears and nose closed. Physiologically speaking, the Platypus reduces its blood flow to parts of its body so that in winter its major organs have greater circulation protecting them from the cold. Behaviourally, this unique creature sweeps the bottom of a river bed with its bill 2 to 3 times a second using river rocks to break up food as it has no teeth. Now, while this sounds fantastic in a biological sense, how specifically does the Platypus and business tie in together?

How Darwin’s Theory of Adapting Relates To Business AdaptAbility

Well, by focusing on the theory of adapting, and then applying this to a business, structural, physiological, and behavioural traits begin to appear. Structurally a company evolves by producing new products or services and employing more people to meet growing demand. Physiologically the same business may alter the layout of its operational space to cater further to this growing demand, it may even move premises or renovate its existing space and information systems to adapt. Then behaviourally a business develops a culture that caters to its employees, which are ever changing and evolving as they learn new skills and advance in their roles.

Now while business models have developed over the years, none of these really consider the business in terms of biology. And yet, they should.

Taking a step back in time, in the early days of business strategy it was all about structure – change the structure of the business, redesign the company (think downsizing, rightsizing), or change the organisational chart (think matrix, inverted hierarchy), and you have changed the strategy. Then the focus of strategy shifted to a physiological nature – it was all about developing quality systems that produced better quality products and less waste – which gave rise to the entire quality movement (think ISO, JIT). Lastly, strategy turned its attention towards behaviour – management, employees, and people within the organisation so that a growth and development culture aided adaptation (think learning organisations, agile).

But, what boards and CEOs didn’t realise, at the time, was there are three distinct kinds of adaptation. Why not? Well, the biologists hadn’t mentioned it to them, and it had never occurred to them to discuss their business concerns with the biologists. The two disciplines – business and biology – work in silos. So, no-one was any the wiser.

I, however, with a background in both business and biology, who had struggled with the demands of being a CEO and fought to get a business under control, sough creative answers to these questions and saw the connection. Thus, as a business ecologist, I help you, the CEO, board or entrepreneur, to connect the dots. I show you how your business exists in an eco-system and ecology where it performs and sustains itself, so that it becomes more adaptable to change.

Having studied many different businesses, as Charles Darwin studied many distinct species, I’ve discovered how effective enterprises deal with the change around them. I’ve discovered how some do and don’t adapt, and what’s happening in each business eco-system. So, when you come to me and say, “How do I improve the performance of my business?” I say, “Let’s consider improving your AdaptAbility”.

Here are six ideas to get you started:

Improving AdaptAbility Idea #1 – Never Repeat Yourself

I went to a presentation by the former creative director of Circ Du Soleil; founded in 1984, in the hope of uncovering how the largest theatrical production company in the world maintains its uniqueness. I was not disappointed. As the presenter said, “One of the driving forces in our organisation is to never repeat yourself. So, when we come up with a show and we finish presenting this around the world, it’s done, and will never be shown again.” This technique, according to the presenter, stimulatates creativity. It stops the production group from becoming stale. Plus, it keeps the audience coming back for more.

Using this principle in business is as simple as:

  1. Changing how a meeting runs – don’t make it predictable by deferring to a standing agenda.

  2. Altering a sales spiel – so it’s not repetitive.

  3. Switching around a product display – making old products appear new and fresh.

By making the workplace fun, interactive and energy charged, you stimulate the creativity of yourself and those around you to help drive innovation within your organisation. Thus, you prevent you and your team from becoming stale and predictable.

Improving AdaptAbility Idea #2 – Throw Yourself into Different Environments

Many people become stuck in their everyday practices and less inclined to try new ways of carrying out tasks, or using new devices. Take for instance new software packages or computer systems. Most staff will groan about having to attend training sessions – some will grasp the new technology quickly, others will struggle. Often this has nothing to do with their learning capabilities, but more with their level of enthusiasm to embrace change and adapt to it.  So, to give you, your staff and your business a new perspective, create a new environment.

I tend to develop my AdaptAbility by picking myself up and dropping myself in different places. How so? Well, I went and dropped myself in Paris and studied my MBA on exchange there. I experienced a different culture, language and food. Different everything.

Now while I don’t sugget that you, your staff and business drop into Paris, I do recommend conducting training sessions in inspiring locations – heritage buildings and historic clubs, private cinemas and art series hotels, or even venture outdoors and use mobile technology, if required. Stimulate and evoke AdaptAbility by removing comfort zones and making those within the business more alert and open to developing their abilities.

I recall a time when study tours used to be more popular, where a group of employees visit a business in another industry or country. Some teams have even embraced biomimicry by turning to nature to find innovative engineering and design solutions they can adapt to solve commercial problems.

Improving AdaptAbility Idea #3 – Controlling Your Fight, Flight, and Fright Response

The left hand side of our brain sees change as threatening, so it triggers a fight, flight, or fright response because it involves uncertainty. For example, let’s say your business is going to merge with another company. Some people who work for you will get a fright when told the news. It will scare them. Other people will feel like running away and not being a part of it, and some people will fight, which usually involves them voicing their opinion about how the move is going to compromise the good work already done.

People automatically have a resistance to change because it involves uncertainty, which they associate by default with loss, rather than gain. To bypass this automatic response you need to condition the minds of your people to see what’s happening around them in a positive rather than negative light. A classic example of this is me having to forgo an interstate holiday. After a fall, I injured myself so I couldn’t go. Instead of getting upset about this, I viewed it as an incident I couldn’t control and one that was supposed to happen by telling myself “It should be this way”. Then I used this spare time to my advantage and turned it into a positive, rather than a negative, by moving some important projects forward in my mind through some deeper reflection whilst I was convalescing.

In the workplace, postively interpreting a situation empowers everyone involved. It turns what could be detrimental ‘negative resistance’ into valuable ‘positive assistance’ for adapting to the change. Take a merger or acquisition, for instance, instead of viewing this situation as negative, think of it as an opportuntiy to add more resources to the existing business, which will help to increase profits and unlock new opportunities afforded by greater scale.

Improving AdaptAbility Idea #4 –  Rewiring Your Brain

Probably the most difficult part about business is managing people, because people are wonderful, often complex creatures. Therefore, when you need people to change their workplace practices its far more difficult than changing a product or service. How so? Well, let’s say you’re in charge of the iPhone design. So you listen to your customers, who are saying they want better security. Thus, you set about designing and integrating facial recognition into the next model that supercedes the already existing fingerprint recognition technology. Both old and new customers notice the change and buy the new product because they can see and appreciate the benefit.

But, when it comes to your staff being willing to learn new ways of working it is far more difficult. Why? Well, learning new techniques means we have to think differently and this can be physically demanding and tiring because in most workplaces ‘shallow work’ occurs. This type of work is distraction filled – co-workers, the Internet, emails – and this leads to a reduction in the quality and volume of work produced.

To overcome shallow work practices and rewire the brain, you need to devote at least two hours a day to ‘deep work’, which is distraction free. Deep work, according to Cal Newport, an associate professor of computer science at Georgetwon University, occurs when continuous work spans for two or more hours daily. Deep, adaptive work is rare because these days we allow ourselves to be constantly interupted by our phones and email. Plus, open office spaces create even further distractions. Yet, to thrive in today’s economy you, and I, need to master hard tasks quickly and produce at a premium level. The good news is we can train our brains to do this by practicing distration-free deep work for an hour a day – where we turn off the internet, email, and shut out co-workers – to focus on our work. Gradually you, your work colleagues, and employees can increase your deep work time, so eventually you rewire your brain to work at a deeper level, thereby improving your AdaptAbility.

Improving AdaptAbility Idea #5 – Grasping the Dynamics of Adapting

The dynamics of adapting occur when you simulatneouly resist change to preserve the core (core values and principles), while at the same time you’re stimulating growth and driving change. So, in this context there are times that you should resist change and then there are other times that you should embrace change. For instance, let’s say someone wanted to change the customer relationship management (CRM) software in your business. This new software has greater capabilities and will enhance your customer relationships, which, in turn, will increase profits. But, it will also mean that all staff, including yourself, will have to undertake additional hours of training and learn new skills, temporarily reducing productivity in the short-term. So, you have to decide whether the change is beneficial or not. If it is, then drive the change by persuading users of the longer-term benefits and how the change will strengthen the culture. If it’s not, then resist it.

The key here though is to change one aspect of business at a time, so adapting is more straightforward and people can process the change. If you change too much too quickly, then adapting is very difficult, and regression rather than progression occurs.

Improving AdaptAbility Idea #6 – Understanding the Law of Adapting

The law of adapting says that the rate of adapting (A) has to be greater than or equal to the rate of change (C). This can be abbreviated and expressed mathematically as A≥C.

Now, this sounds like a logical, even smart idea – the rate of adapting must equal or be more than the rate of change within an organisation. But, you can’t help but wonder how you can apply this equation to your business.

Firstly, you need to look at how you can speed up the process of adapting within your business. And secondly, you may need to slow down the rate of change happening around you, because in some companies there’s too much change. For instance, they go from one IT upgrade to the next and then people get change fatigue. So, by reducing the amount of change, you allow adapting to take place easier.

Some government organisations we have worked with have to contend with a lot of political change and uncertainty. This type of change ultimately erodes the resilience of their people if they cannot make sense or give sense to those changes in terms of improving their AdaptAbility.

AdpatAbility Case Study

The Client:

On a very practical level, let’s take a real world example from a client we’ve worked with. This client sought to improve their ability to adapt the business’s ever changing financial data to their every day needs.

The Challenge:

In this instance, the board and management team were receiving financial reports in PDF format from their outsourced bookeeper around the 10th day of each month. This meant that they were trying to make intelligent business decisions about the future of the business based on financial information that was up to six-weeks-old. As a result, they found it difficult to integrate this information into their meetings. Looking to overcome this obstacle, I encouraged the business to migrate to a cloud-based accounting platform.

The Outcome:

The business staff (individually and collectively) can now self-serve, review and analyse live information and make better decisions based on current information. This has empowered the board and management team of this business to proactively respond rather than simply react to change, by bringing their decision making closer to the facts rather than the feelings of different team members.


Overall, these six ideas are a brief introduction to some of the concepts and applications that exist within the domain of AdaptAbility. If you’d like to know more, then seek out the blog post on each, to really cultivate your AdaptAbility. Master these principles and you’ll be rewarded handsomely, as adapting to change is a valuable commodity. Initially, you’ll get more done in your workplace faster, then you’ll also produce better quality work.