The 4 Key Success ‘abilities’ of Adaptability You Can Learn Today

Ross Thornley
Aug 1 · 9 min read

Adaptability has been described by the Harvard Business Review as ‘the new competitive advantage’. 2018 LinkedIn data revealed that adaptability topped the top five soft skills that employers were looking for in new candidates. Our ability to be able to un-learn, re-skill, and change according to circumstances and demand has become more important than ever, and is it any wonder?

We live in a world where the speed of change has become exponential. Gordon Moore published a paper in the 1950s observing the number of transistors on a circuit board was doubling roughly every twelve to eighteen months. This exponential progress of continual doublings was termed Moore’s Law, and for the last fifty years has been observable in almost all of the technological progress we’ve made, from solar energy, computing computational power, 3D printing, to sensors, AI, and robotics.

There is no dispute technology directly influences our way of life, our culture, and now the collective potential of the human race. As a result, with every new advance comes obsolescences and alterations. We are seeing entire industries disappear, and many think the traditional view of the retail industry and global energy production are next.

How might physical stores, with their innumerable overheads, compete with online ordering? The answer is: only if they adapt. Many are looking to leverage experiential points of difference: it’s interesting how information abundance and technology has created a shift in focus for many organisations. The rise in ‘board game cafes’ is significant of this trend. If you don’t know what a board game cafe is: it’s pretty much what it says on the tin. Each store has a different model, but essentially you pay to book a table and play one of the store’s games. It’s a great way to try out new games, or simply to play the games in a nice space specifically designed to optimise that experience. You can buy games to keep, but most people just borrow them for the time they spend at the cafe, and then put them back on the shelf when they’re done. The rise of these specific, niche cafes suggests customers are perhaps moving towards a social activity that is physical, face-to-face, and community-orientated. Board game cafes know they can’t compete with an online store in terms of pricing, or the range of their stock, but they can compete by providing a unique human experience. This is a great example of adapting. Board game cafes aren’t trying to compete on the same terms as Amazon or other online stores, but providing something only they can, then using digital tools to further build communities and reach.

An example is all very well, but how do we actually define and measure adaptability? Like many of the most important things in life we want to improve, it all starts with the ability to measure and report progress: from motivation, productivity, and emotional health, to our communication and feelings towards others, it can often be very difficult to quantify in a metric, numerical way (which we as a species love so much). However, measuring and improving our adaptability is arguably tantamount to the very survival of our species, so we simply must find a way. Adaptai, who have developed the first-ever holistic metric of AQ or adaptability quotient, have identified four key elements of our ability to adapt. Understanding these aspects and how they interact can help us improve our own adaptability and guide us away from systems collapse and survival, supporting us towards thriving and perpetual growth.

Whilst the Adaptai AQ model includes two other master elements, (Character and Environment) each with 4 sub-dimensions of adaptability, this post focuses on the first — ‘Ability’

  1. Resilience

resilience: ‘the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness’, or, in other words, the ability to ‘bounce back’.

In their study ‘Resilience Training That Can Change the Brain’ (2018), Golnaz Tabibnia & Dan Radecki stated that:

‘One of the challenges of consulting and coaching psychology is helping individuals, teams, and entire enterprises weather life and work stressors. These stressors can be one-time and acute, such as unexpected job transfer or job loss, or more chronic, such as bad bosses, broken peer relationships, and dysfunctional team members. Some people are more resilient than others in the face of such stressors, but many of the skills that make for resilience can be learned.’

This is an intriguing observation; whilst we tend to think of resilience as something innate, almost like a trait of personality, we can in fact learn to become more resilient. How good is that!? It’s a common idiom that negative experiences ‘build character’. However, resilience is not simply toughing it out but also learning to ‘bounce back’. The faster we are able to bounce back, the more resilient we are.

A good example of resilience can be found in William Golding, the author of the world-famous Lord of the Flies. As a young writer, with nothing but the unpublished manuscript of Lord of the Flies under his belt, he approached every single publisher in London, only to be rejected by all of them. He was sent a letter by one reader at Faber and Faber that described it as: “Rubbish, dull and pointless”. However, rather than allowing this to crush him, he bounced back and simply began re-submitting the manuscript to each publisher again. He was in luck. Faber and Faber had recently had a change of management, hiring a dynamic new Head of Acquisitions. Unlike the former Head, the new reader was prepared to give Golding a chance on his radical manuscript. As of writing, Lord of the Flies has sold 25 million copies in English alone. There is a similar parallel in the experience of J. K. Rowling and Harry Potter.

If you are interested in discovering your current level of resilience and the techniques you can deploy to improve them, check out www.adaptai.co, where soon you will be able to take the AQ assessment and benefit directly from personalised development tools.

2. Flexibility

flexibility: ‘the quality of bending easily without breaking’

As well as being resilient, with the ability to swiftly bounce back from setbacks, we also need to be flexibly minded. In the previous example, it was the new Head of Acquisitions who showed great flexibility of thinking. He had never read a book like Lord of the Flies before, but was prepared to take a creative risk in publishing it, because he believed in it enough to give it a shot.

However, it is not just being ‘open minded’. Flexibility is also about being able to shift between conflicting and opposing ideas. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the writer of the iconic masterpiece The Great Gatsby, once said: ‘The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.’ In the modern world, which places increasing demands on our time, we need to be able to flit between one mindset and another effortlessly more than ever. For example, we might need to be able to run a current business process whilst also searching for ways the model can be improved, transformed, and perhaps completely disrupted.

In their article ‘Transitioning Towards New Ways of Working: Do Job Demands, Job Resources, Burnout, and Engagement Change?’, Elianne F. Van Steenbergen, Cilia van der Ven, Maria C. W. Peeters and Toon W. Taris outline the factors that may help transitioning to new modes of work, in one example, telecommuting:

“Judge, Thoresen, Pucik, and Welbourne (1999) found that managers higher in Openness to experiences were better able to cope with organizational change. Moreover, practical personal resources such as flexibility (i.e., adapting to changes at work)… may enable employees to make an optimal transition to telecommuting. (Lapierre et al., 2015).”

So, as well as developing resilience against setbacks, we also need to be able to hold multiple possibilities in mind and be prepared to be flexible in how we work. In the words of Maria Matarelli: ‘What I’ve found is that those who approach their projects with a rigid system often buckle under the shifting currents of the market.’

3. Learning Drive

Our Learning Drive can be characterised as our passion and hunger for more knowledge. In the West there is an idea that once we have finished school, or university, we no longer need to ‘keep learning’. Graduated students say it almost with a kind of relief. We believe the knowledge acquired as young adults will take us forward for the rest of our lives. This is not only slightly bleak, but untrue. When we are open to growth, life is a continual learning experience. If we want to thrive and succeed, then we have to constantly seek new learning to better ourselves.

We mentioned Flexibility is one of the key dimensions of our ability to adapt. Often we must be flexible and adjust our strategy based off of new information or research that has come to light. So, Learning Drive and Flexibility work together. Our thirst for new information to help us improve a product, service, or help us deliver more accurate feedback to a customer, can sometimes mean that we have to transform what we’re doing, rapidly pivoting to a new tangent. As Torben Rick observed in 2014: ‘Of the 500 companies that appeared on the first list [Fortune 500], in 1955, only 71 held a place on the list in 2008… Organizations, and the people within them, must constantly re-invent themselves to remain competitive. Sustaining success depends on an organization’s ability to adapt to a changing environment.’ In 2019, the list has been disrupted even further.

The world of software and gaming is the forerunner in this respect. In our modern day and age, software can be patched on a weekly or even more frequent basis, constantly tweaking and improving it. Gone are the days of installing a disc that contained an entire program, one that would remain valid for a year or longer. Now, software and gaming companies can instantly update their programs and games remotely based off data-findings, feedback, or the latest research/innovation. How can we emulate them in our processes and approach to adapting?

In such states of rapid change, an emerging and valuable aspect where flexibility, learning drive, and experimentation converge, we find the new field of study in understanding our ability to ‘un-learn’. This process is becoming increasingly critical, where the successful methodologies and approaches of yesterday morph from springboards to a brighter, bigger future, into the very anchors and tethers holding us back. The trick is knowing when to let go of these past processes and strategies to make room for new ones that are more able to support our transformation into future success and growth.

4. Mindset

The last, but by no means least, dimension of adaptability is our self-belief. To have optimism, to have hope, to see a possible future. Our mindset and outlook have a disproportionate influence on the outcomes. If we actually have belief in our ability to achieve something, we are infinitely more likely to achieve it.

As summarised in ‘The Direct and Indirect Effects of Employees’ Mindsets on Job Performance’ by Matt Zingoni & Christy M. Corey:

“At one end of the continuum are those with an entity mindset; they believe that human attributes are fixed and cannot be changed. At the other end of the continuum are those with an incremental mindset; they believe that human attributes can be changed through effort and hard work. Where individuals fall on this continuum has been found to have profound effects on their thoughts and behaviors (e.g., Dweck, 1999; Dweck, Chiu, & Hong, 1995).”

If we are to thrive in this ever-changing world, we have to embrace the incremental mindset that we can change through effort, perseverance, and constant experimentation.

Curious about your AQ score? Are you responsible for over 50 people in your team or organisation? Then sign up to their beta here at www.adaptai.co/beta

Ross Thornley

Written by

Excited by ambition, partnerships & new models of thinking. UN SDGs innovation accelerator. Husband, creator, facilitator, international speaker & AQ pioneer

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