· Features

Adaptability is critical for successful organisations – but how adaptable is HR?

In a Harvard Business Review article, the writers made the point that in a globalised, higher-risk and unstable business environment, the old ways of strategic planning and operating just won’t cut the mustard.

Models, strategies and even processes can become obsolete really quickly. Forecasting doesn't apply much anymore because the external environment can change very quickly.

Based on their research the writers identified adaptability as a critical characteristic of companies who thrive in fast-changing and highly competitive environments.

They found four capabilities that allow an organisation to rapidly adapt:

The ability to quickly appreciate when change is happening (or even before it starts) and to respond quickly

The ability to test and experiment quickly and often. In the past the focus of testing has focused on products and services, but this ability also applies to business models, processes and strategies

The ability to recognise and effectively manage stakeholders in complex relationships and roles; in particular in multinational locations

The ability to motivate and lead in a rapidly changing environment

But, how can these characteristics be reflected in individuals and teams and how we can encourage and build the AQ, or adaptability quotient, in our own organisations?

Based on the above capabilities, look at how adaptable your board of directors is. In particular, as a team, is the board visibly committed to, and supportive of, experimentation and testing out new ways of doing things and do they encourage a culture of experimentation? Is there a structure in place for allowing teams to suggest changes in response to external signals? And, most importantly, are managers and teams praised and rewarded for trying things that don't work?

A much-quoted example of such a culture is Google, where staff are encouraged to spend 20% of their working time on new ideas, both in terms of products and processes. Good ideas are given the green light quickly, tested and either put in place if they work or pulled if they don't.

As a group, how open is the board in communicating and sharing information across the organisation? Their level of openness and willingness to communicate with stakeholders will be a key indicator of how adaptable the Board is.

As individuals, do Board members display the four adaptability characteristics and how often do they themselves ask for feedback and make visible changes to what they do, based on that feedback? Finally, how effectively do they motivate and lead the organisation through change?

I believe it is critical to do some level of structured assessment of both the Board as a group, and as individuals, to have a clear picture of how adaptable the organisation thinks the Board is, but also how the Board see themselves in terms of AQ. Any gap in perceptions will be a great opportunity to open up the adaptability discussion and encourage more adaptable characteristics to bloom.

Understanding the level of AQ further down the organisation will also help to create a culture of adaptability - curiosity, learning and feedback all being critical underlying features of adaptability.

As well as individual and group characteristics, there are organisational structures and processes that can help or hinder a culture of adaptability.

If the organisation has open communication and knowledge sharing channels it's easier to discuss new ways of doing things, the results of experiments and tests and how successes in one area can be replicated elsewhere.

The more decision-making is delegated to front-line people, the faster information about changing customer needs and competitor activity can be acted on. Small actions at local level can then result in bigger changes happening across the organisation. Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL, advocates constant feedback from the 'bottom' of the organisation to the CEO. His view being that senior executives exist to facilitate what employees know needs to be done in order to make the company succeed, not the other way around. He is a totally adaptable CEO!

Think about how much adaptability is currently built into people processes in your organisation and how you might be able to incorporate adaptability characteristics.

A simple way of picking up on changing needs more quickly would be through having more open and frequent conversations with divisional and team leaders, and sharing the result of those discussions with other teams and HR colleagues.

With the support of team leaders, experiment and test new models of recruiting, resourcing and training. Set goals, test small and get honest feedback from stakeholders.

Consider including adaptability characteristics in your training and management and leadership development activities. Make it a key management competency and include it in performance management and appraisal.

Finally, ask yourself how adaptable you are and how willing you are to take a risk, try something new, have more open conversations and, in the process, help your organisation adapt to changing demands of the business environment. Are we willing to put our money where our mouth is and really increase the AQ of our organisation?

Jo Ayoubi (pictured) is MD Track Surveys