Organisational Development consultant and research partner at Futureteaming
It’s a Thursday in late February 2020, and I’m walking the streets of my home-town, Stavanger, a picturesque city of white clapboard houses in SW Norway. The winter nights are long at this latitude, and there’s a cold north wind blowing, but that doesn’t stop people getting onto the streets for traditional late-night shopping. The restaurants are bustling. The bars along the waterfront are as packed and raucous as ever.
It feels strange for me now to look back on this “normal” winter’s evening in Stavanger and realise it was the last day of what might be called the “old civilisation” - the day before COVID-19 arrived.
The next day, February 28th, the first two positive COVID tests were reported at the Stavanger University Hospital – local people returning from winter ski holidays in Italy or Austria who had somehow become infected. They were the first of a growing number who finally brought world events home to our quiet corner of the planet.
Everybody knew about this deadly virus which had sprung up in China and was steadily infecting more and more people. But hey, China is a long way away, and we’ve read scare stories like this before that just seemed to evaporate. So up until February 27th , COVID-19 was a phoney war. But 24 hours later all that changed. People stopped going out…They began to keep their distance from one another…There was a sense of minor panic every time someone coughed in public. And then within a few days, the Norwegian government really brought the message home. No public gatherings. Explicit social distancing guidelines. School closures. Restrictions on foreign travel. Two weeks quarantine for all incomers from abroad. Now it felt like we were in a real war, the first one most of us had ever experienced.
As I write this in late May, pretty much the whole world has gone through this “first impact”, and the majority of the world’s population has been coping with some form of lock-down, to say nothing of the terrible toll of illness and loss of life. Overnight, life as we know it has drastically changed. Our social lives are curtailed, our scope for movement and travel hugely reduced. For many of us the ability to earn a living has become tenuous, or at worst has disappeared altogether. We find ourselves in uncharted territory looking for the leaders – and the leadership qualities – which will help guide us to a new stability.
And yet…if we’d taken more notice of certain commentators, we wouldn’t have been so surprised. Take Bill Gates, who in his 2015 TED Talk warned the world with great clarity that we weren’t ready to deal with a global pandemic. And further back still, since the 1980s in fact, sociologists have been telling us about the growing unpredictability of the modern world. How the impact of exploding world population, climate change, globalisation, new technologies, diversity, digitalisation, social upheaval and migration….all these and more have contributed to a world that is more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous than ever before. And this trend, called “VUCA” for short, is becoming steadily more severe.
So the COVID pandemic is but the latest, and most convulsive, revolution of this change engine called VUCA. We will recover, and hopefully can right some former wrongs in the world as we do so. But be sure - there will be “future shocks” at least as severe, to which we and the generations following us are going to have to adjust.
What does this VUCA world demand of us?
If we were to find one word that might sum up the response we need, that word could be “adaptiveness”. Rather appropriately, just like the creatures in Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”, if we are to survive as our environment changes, we must have the ability to adapt. We either adapt or disappear. Adaptiveness is an inherent principle of the evolution of species. And it applies equally in a host of other domains – including in business. As Leon C. Megginson said in reference to business domains, “...It is not the most intellectual of the species...(or)...the strongest that survives,...it is the one that is best able to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
Adaptiveness has obvious relevance for our societies – for our entire civilisation, in fact. It applies to the physical infrastructure we have built around us. Our roads, our buildings, our water and power supplies, our sea defences – and of course our medical facilities. And it applies equally to the kind of organisations we rely upon – government, health services, police, military, businesses. And also, crucially, to the people in those organisations. To the leaders and followers. And that brings us to the kind of mindsets we all need to develop if we are to deal effectively – and constructively – with VUCA.
In FutureTeaming I’m fortunate to have colleagues around me who “live” at the frontline of adaptiveness every day. They work in fast-moving and sometimes unpredictable environments such as in aviation crews and police intervention teams. They have to lead routinely in high-stress situations, often with high public visibility, and are able to bring this direct experience into the realms of organizational development and leadership.
So what are the typical qualities of “adaptiveness”? What does an adaptive organisation look like? Here’s where we’ve got to so far...
First and foremost, adaptive organisations need a bedrock of psychological safety in their teams. Psychological safety is the essential foundation if we are to create the trust, openness and self-reliance we need for an adaptive organization. Without it, our teams lack the foundation of confidence they need to act and interact positively.
Second, we need to develop organizational structures and cultures which encourage adaptive thinking and behaviour within a stable supporting framework.
Third, we need a strong client focus if we are to combine all these adaptive qualities into high performance. Adapting to the changing needs of our client is essential if we are to stay relevant and competitive. This applies equally whether the client is internal or external.
Finally, we look for adaptive leaders who can move between leadership styles depending on circumstances, but whose main focus it is to nurture and develop the people around them to deliver the very best those individuals – and their teams – are capable of in complex environments.
Now we have a blueprint, but what can we do to develop and implement it in our enterprises? What can we do to build more adaptive people, teams and organisations? Of course, this depends on the specific circumstances, but here are key areas we focus on in Futureteaming.
We’re living in interesting times…facing an array of global challenges that no previous generation of humans has had to contend with. It’s a daunting prospect, brought home to us all-too-powerfully by the COVID pandemic. And yet…we are by nature an adaptive species. If we can meet the challenges of VUCA in a constructive, creative way then the human race has the biggest opportunity yet to build more just, free, efficient and bountiful cultures.
The time is upon us. Now is the time to prepare your organisation, leaders and people for the shift towards adaptiveness. It’s time for the adaptive organisation.