Adaptability refers to a person who can easily change what they’re doing to fit the current situation. This could involve anything from a change in their work to a change in their behavior. People who are appropriately adaptable are Chameleons with a Core™: they successfully navigate changes while preserving their own identity and values. While this is an essential skill for daily life, it is especially relevant for project managers and change stakeholders.
People who score high in the Adaptability category are skilled at knowing when it is appropriate to standardize and when it is better to deviate from the path to get things done. While they may not necessarily be energized by constant change, they are competent and capable of navigating the fluctuating waters of your organization. Others likely rely on them as people who can keep a cool head through the chaos. Below are some examples of exercises to improve your Adaptability.
- Try explaining it to a five-year-old. Chances are, there are things you and your organization are doing that could be changed. However, after doing things the same way for so long, we forget that there’s any other way to do it. Go through your tasks and take the time to mentally explain to yourself why they are important – but take your time to break things down as if you were explaining to a five-year-old child, who has never seen how you or your organization functions before. A child might have questions like, ‘Why do they use the computer to communicate instead of walking down the hall to their office?”, “Why don’t people say what they really mean?”, or “Why aren’t those teams sharing?” By delving into your cultures and procedures this way, you may discover inefficiencies and begin practicing small changes in your own thoughts and behavior.
- Question yourself. What words do you use in your head? Do you use positive language or defeatist language? Do you find yourself falling into the comfort of using simple obstructive words like “can’t” or “won’t” or “impossible”? Try changing your mental script. How would it feel if those tasks weren’t impossible? What are the odds that they actually were possible, even if only marginally likely to occur? Get rid of the words that don’t serve you and are stopping you from growing through change. Push yourself to be open to new ideas, and check in with yourself about how those ideas make you feel. Become familiar with the boundaries of your comfort zone, and what it feels like when something pushes those boundaries. Incrementally work to expand that zone.
- “Take a look at your project management methodology from a fresh perspective. Take a step back and ask if it is achieving the goals you desire. Is it providing too much structure? Is it not providing enough structure? Develop a list of action items you and the project leadership at your organization can take to adapt the framework to what is best for your organization. Don't view this as a one-time-only event. Come back to this exercise regularly to reevaluate and tweak the methodology.” - A Sixth Sense for Project Management, Tres Roeder.
For more information about how to improve your adaptability, see A Sixth Sense for Project Management, pg 75.
BE MINDFUL: WHEN NOT TO ADAPT
Roeder Consulting defines someone who is adaptable as “a chameleon with a core”. Team members should not just survive through change, but thrive. Chameleon-like people experience few emotional or mental obstacles when adapting to changing surroundings. They simply change colors without a fuss, and continue on.
Adaptability is an integral part of the Six Disciplines - as change managers, adaptability is practically the air we breathe. But, it’s important to remember that the chameleon needs a core. It is just as essential to be comfortable with change as it is to know when not to change.
Often, we’ll meet with a client who is enthusiastic about implementing a backlog of dozens of changes – and they would like to start all of them today. They want to refresh their vision statement, update communications, implement new software, and change the organizational structure to match it (upon other things). When clients choose to move forward in this way, we’ve seen managers burn out after a couple months. The weight of so many projects starting at once just isn’t sustainable, either for the business or the people involved. It’s important to know how to prioritize changes and how to determine which aspects of the business should stay the same.
Other times, at the first sign of failure, managers might leave the initiative they’ve been championing by the wayside in favor of a newer, trendier proposition. This can leave even the most adaptable team members reeling. It’s difficult to fully buy-in to a project and put in extra hours to see it through, especially if management has demonstrated they won’t back up their initial excitement with supportive actions when times get tough. Starting and abandoning several different projects can actually be worse for your organization than if you had never engaged in a single project to start with.
DON'T LOSE ENGAGEMENT
It is also important for long-term engagement purposes that team members are adapting healthily. Adapting to everything without reflection can actually cause a phenomenon known as the “shifting baseline”¹, in which people don’t consciously realize they are unhappy and disengaging. Over several unwanted adaptations to changes in the work environment, team members may no longer know or remember what it felt like to be truly engaged. It’s important to stay aware of our surroundings so that we do not passively allow a culture to change for the worse. If the changes are small and introduced slowly, it’s easy to adjust to a culture where employees learn that opinions are not wanted, or that they cannot make an impact. With time, this will be to the detriment of the overall organization’s employee engagement levels. Gallup research shows this tends to increase turnover, and the costs associated with it².
When focusing on Adaptability, we want to make sure that we do not change so frequently that we become seen as “flaky”, “unfocused”. It is important to be confident and knowledgeable about the benefits and drawbacks of the changes you initiate. If not, you risk appearing so inconsistent that you may lose your team’s trust³.
Instead of changing on a dime as the situation changes, continually get buy-in about new ideas. Make sure key stakeholders are onboard. Listen to people “on the ground”, and those who are most heavily impacted by change. For the sake of engagement, buy-in, turnover, and cost effectiveness, it is better to slowly change as few times as possible, rather than change rapidly to every new piece of information.
¹ JB MacKinnon. The Once and Future World. Random House, 2013.
² Gallup. The State of the American Workplace. Gallup Reports, 2017.
³ Myler, Larry. Strategy 101: It’s All About Alignment. Forbes, 2013.