2020: Profound adaptation is being demanded by the next decade


The fires are still raging on Australia’s eastern seaboard, the ongoing drought and death of iconic native fauna (not to mention flora) are bringing climate change home to roost. Sydney-siders are reading each day about ‘apocalyptic’ air quality conditions due to smoke from fires. The world news seems to whirl passed us with increasing complexity and pace… it leaves some of us feeling numb and hopeless.

But it is not hopeless because we are humans, a species that has emerged from this planet.

Humans are inherently creative and a force of nature itself. Our task is to liberate that creativity and the powerful life force that exists within nature.

Adaptation is the very force of and for life.

Adaptation to survive and thrive, is the ultimate understanding of the term ‘sustainability’ because all living systems adapt to sustain themselves – to thrive within their niche. I will leave this point to expand upon another day.

Adpative leadership

For the last 13 years, since I first went to Harvard to learn the adaptive leadership framework with Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, I have been helping people within organisations, and community leaders, to cultivate adaptive change. That is, helping them to nurture the conditions for people to reconfigure the way they perceive challenges and therefore respond to them in very different ways.

Over that time, I have come to realise that there are at least two different levels of adaptive work or change – one of which is more surface-level change, and another that is more profound. As awareness of the issues of climate change and un-sustainability become more mainstream, we need to understand the difference between these levels of adaption. This distinction will help us to develop the capacity to generate changes that are transformational in effect. I believe that our ability to do this will determine our fate as a species.

The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.

Gregory Bateson

The task of adaptation may seem overwhelming and it may seem costly – but it’s not. There are many benefits to be gained, including employee engagement, satisfaction and growth.

I know we can adapt because I have worked with people who have done it and are currently doing it. This short article aims to distinguish between the two levels of adaptation with the hope of encouraging us all to go to a more profound level of adaptation.

What is adaptation?

Adaptation is a term that comes from an understanding of living systems (or complex adaptive systems and is sometimes known as complexity). Living systems replicate themselves from their existing elements (like your body having the capacity to repair itself). A living system or organism will adapt to changes in the environment in which it exists, as agents within the system make sense of the incoming information, with reference back to the purpose or DNA of the system itself. It is a self-referential process that no-one is in charge of and for which there is no pre-determined blueprint. It is unplanned: the adaptation happens emergently. It is experimental.

The first and more shallow level of adaptive work reflects this type of adaptation. The purpose of the system remains unchanged. 

An example of a shallow adaptation

A recent societal, superficial adaptive change of the nature I am speaking about, reflects the recognition that plastic straws are causing a great deal of harm. And many shops and bars have changed to provide paper straws – just like I used to use a child (so long ago). Similarly, there is a movement to ban the use of single-use plastics.

This change represents a reprioritisation of values from the convenience and low cost of plastics to placing more value on doing less harm to nature. So it is an adaptive change. But it doesn’t go as deep as we need because perhaps we have now transferred the problem to excessive use of paper resources. 

Profound adaptive change

A more profound adaptive difference is possible, and that change comes into view when we challenge the underlying assumption that the shallow adaptation has side-stepped or overlooked. 

In the example above, the unconscious assumption is that we need straws at all! If we test this assumption, we might see the elimination of straws entirely (except for those people with the medical or physical needs of them).

Why do we ‘need’ a straw to drink a milkshake or gin and tonic?

This question is a doorway to a deeper level of adaptation that is open to us. We need to learn to engage with this type of inquiry if we are to transform the way we live and work to make progress on the critical issues of climate change and un-sustainability.

It requires us to push ‘upstream’ (to employ a systems thinking term) as we consider the challenges before us. It requires us to think ‘slowly’ as Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast and Slow) puts it, or ‘deeply and deliberately’ as I prefer to refer to it. Slowly has too many negative connotations in our society where fast action is so valued. 

At a deeper level, it is re-purposing the system. We humans can use our conscious thought processes to question the very purpose of our organisations. Is the goal just to make profits or keep a given political party in power? 

Adaptability within organisations today

Providing corporate examples of deep adaption is difficult because most organisations are designed and assumed to work more like ‘well-oiled machines’ than living systems. Within a hierarchical context, there is not ‘broad participation of the agents’ within the system to assess the need for change. The assessment of the need for change is done at senior levels and then communicated downwards. I believe this dynamic explains why 70-90% of all organisational change initiatives (still) fail to deliver the intended outcomes.

However, Interface Carpets is one business that transformed itself from exploiter to nurturer, and my research within the City of Marion is another expression of a paradigmatic transformation. There are also other examples of organisations that are working more like living systems than machines provided in LaRoux’s “Reinventing Organizations“.

In my experience, most corporates have difficulty adapting (at any level) because of the legacy of assumptions that underpin the hierarchical structure. Hierarchy, with its original purpose within the military, has been pre-conceived for a context where ‘command and control’ are highly valued and believed to be necessary. These qualities have served us so well for so long that we assume that there is no other way. 

Now, however, we find that the management practices that we have developed to control, gain efficiencies and ensure uniformity – is almost the direct opposite of the expertise we need to understand a world of volatility, complexity, and being effective. 

We are living through a significant paradigmatic shift, and these types of transformations are seismic. A new paradigm, by its very definition, negates the old standard.

Paradigmatic shifts we have transitioned in the past

Humans have lived through such times before. We have experienced paradigmatic shifts that have changed the way we view the world and also changed us as a result. For example, in 1539 Copernicus overturned a thousand years of doctrine that the sun revolves around the sun. In 1859, Darwin published “On the Origin of Species” touting natural selection as a process of evolution. This view was heretical challenging creationism. Mendel, in 1865 showed that genetics were passed on from parent to child, not in an average fashion but over multiple generations with hybrid, dominant and recessive genes. And as recently as 1965, there was acceptance that ‘plate tectonics’ is an explanation for large-scale geologic change. In 2000, a new term for a new geologic era was popularised by scientists, The Anthropocene.

We’ve got this!

We should take heart therefore, that we are capable of transitioning through old paradigms and into new paradigms. Paradigms are after all, just different ways we think about reality in our heads. In fact, I believe we are capable of a lot more than just transitioning, I believe we are capable of discovering and liberating a great deal more human creativity and joy in the process.

This is a transition, the opportunity for which, should be cherished and enjoyed because we have been so blissfully unaware of the costs of the old paradigm! Now we can realise these costs and shift into reaping the rewards of human ingenuity – not merely technologically, but in the fullness of our humanity.

This coming decade is demanding us to transition to a new paradigm.

How are you placed to engage with this transition?

How am I contributing to this shift?

My work this year has been transitioning itself very naturally. I am:

  • Delivering Generating Real Change, a two day workshop to learn and apply the principles of adaptive leadership. (Getting great feedback from participants.)
  • Working with sustainability teams to help them view their work and the way it is organised through the lens of complexity and I would be very happy to extend this work to any team working with complex issues (e.g. health, transport, education). This is a team development and coaching program called Lens: team development for those working in complexity.
  • Continue to provide Executive Coaching and group coaching in various contexts.
  • Designing and delivering bespoke leadership development programs for clients that embrace vertical and horizontal development.

I would love to do more of this work. Please contact me if you are interested in reaping some substantial rewards! I will shout the coffee 🙂