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How to Be Adaptable in Volatile Times

Updated on March 6, 2021
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Mary is an organizational development specialist and writes about today's challenges.

Adaptability 50 Years Ago

Fifty years ago, when we looked for our first job in industry after graduating from university, we boasted about it, and they tested us on our adaptability.

In large companies, new staff were rotated through different departments learning the skills required in various management positions and showing how they could shift work patterns, knowledge, and relationships from one group to another quickly without an issue.

A degree in history or social sciences taught how only the adaptable survive, and we used that learning.

Adapting to a New World

Adaptability | Source

Shaped by Volatility

The world has moved on. Employers either don't have the time or won't make time for that kind of multi-month bridging session. Even in the employment interview, scenarios can be made and quickly changed to see how the potential employee responds in the new working world where every day can bring a new demand or a new technology or a unique opportunity in a new language.

Adaptability is one of the most important skills a young person can develop in today's world shaped by uncertainty and focussed on specialty knowledge.

We Are In Flux

We are in flux, according to the Right Management Manpower Group. Recently, this group did a survey of 100 HR leaders and 250 line managers in the UK and Irish organizations with 500+ employees, and their key findings confirm what you must have observed or experienced:

  • 91% of HR Directors think that by 2018, they will recruit people on their ability to deal with change and uncertainty
  • 60% of HR Directors identified employee wellness and resilience as key to enabling organizations to achieve their objectives.
  • 53% of HR Directors said that employees' ability to deal with unanticipated problems is the critical attribute for future business success

I don't think this is a surprise to many of you. The writing on the wall is clear. If you are to succeed in this constantly changing environment, you need to be at home with uncertainty. Adaptability is being able to respond to uncertainty and remain ever relevant as changes come.

Adaptability is now the defining characteristic for success, and employers seek and value this highly in recruits. Employers recruit applicants whom they think can adapt quickly to the changing circumstances, resourceful enough to deal with what might come up and see failure as a learning opportunity. Many employers now actively recruit the talent they need, and their field of recruitment has become global.

Adaptability in Today's World

Adaptability in Today's World
Adaptability in Today's World | Source

What is Adaptability?

So, what is adaptability? The word comes from Latin, adapto, which means fit to or adjust. In organizational change, its most commonly understood that adaptability is the ability to change or be changed to fit transformed circumstances. According to Katja Andresen and Norbert Gronau, who pushed for adaptability to be considered a field of organizational management, it can change something or oneself to fit occurring changes.

Often, they refer to it as lateral thinking, but it is much more than just lateral thinking, which is vital. Thinking laterally suggests you can look in many directions for solutions to one problem. Adaptability means you can hopscotch from one issue to another and begin designing an approach to a solution.

Especially if you are part of the gig economy, adaptability is the basis of any employment continuity. Perhaps, you’re a painter/designer, but you must adapt from painting on walls to paper to plastic and from grand to miniature. If you’re a programmer, you have to fit into whatever language or format each employer wants.

There are great examples around. Elon Musk moves from space scientist to electrical engineer to futurist car designer to hole digger. Jeff Bezos seems to tackle almost anything and, finally, supervise the experts he hires.

We all can’t be that level of genius. Still, in today’s work environment, we almost will be able to adapt quickly and apply our skills and knowledge, attitudes, and behaviours to new circumstances, new environments, and new data daily.

Elon Musk: A Genius at Adaptability?

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
Elon Musk has pushed performance and achievement not just in himself but in the people he recruits. According to many, he wires for success. Ashlee Vance gives us Elon Musk, a genius at adaptability as he moved not just from one continent to a new one but from one business to the next. He changes the fundamentals of those businesses in a way not thought of possible by the greats in that business and fundamentally shapes our lives and our future. Try to read this book and go through the experience with Elon as he builds his business at the same time sending shock waves to the industry. Exceptionally well written by a well-known business columnist and author, it is a joy to read. I did not buy the book because I follow the news around Elon Musk, but our daughter brought us a copy, and I read through it all the time conflicted, admiring Musk and wondering at the same time if he is just plain crazy as he, himself, asked the author. Crazy or not, he has driven himself and those he recruited to look at errors as challenges and lack of resources as opportunities to create something not done before. How does he do this? Get the book and read for yourself.

How to Become More Adaptable in Volatile Times

So how do you become more adaptable, especially in today's highly volatile environment? How do you practice? If you're a footballer, you start young kicking with your left foot. If you're a coder, you expand your battery of language skills. If if you're a modeller, you learn everything you can about additive manufacturing and then keep learning.

You look at the job title you might be applying for and identify all the skills needed to deliver the job and allied jobs. You'll find yourself saying, "Hey, I can do that too". That way, even if it's one narrow set that they hire you for, you can move quickly to respond to crazy needs that become part of the problem as you expand the solution.

Don't overspecialize. The employers need to have your core skills, but you need to see how your part fits into the broader piece and keep thinking of how your work edges can connect with the advantages of 4 or 5 other people doing complimentary components. Tinker, tweak, test out and allow your kids to do so.

Practicing a "can-do attitude" can help look at any problem and think of alternate ways of tackling it. Making batteries is one thing, but linking batteries to electric motors to charging stations to wheels and guidance systems, that's where the magic lies, and it's in those edges that the great opportunities lie. TESLA is a collection of narrow skills exploded into a whole can by a genius of adaptability.

Remember, adaptability does not mean giving in but growing out. You take your core competencies and values and use that as a seedbed for change.

Women Driving Rickshaws in Barcelona

Women Driving Rickshaws in Barcelona
Women Driving Rickshaws in Barcelona | Source

How do you usually react to change

When plans change for a family celebration for example, what do you usually do?

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It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.

— Charles Darwin

How flexible are you?

In general, how would you rate yourself in flexibility?

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Never Too Old to Try New Things

Trying New Things
Trying New Things | Source

15 Ways to Become More Adaptable Today

1. Change your mental frame.
You have, as we all do, a frame from which we view events. Change this frame of mind, mental model or what others refer to as world view and develop an Open Mindset. It is a mindset that is open to looking at changes and seeing how to adapt yourself or your organization to it. The more entrenched you are in your perspective, the more closed your mind is. With a closed mind, intelligence and energy are used to reframe the changes to fit the old world view or make it right. Nobody wants to be wrong, but to be adaptable, one must be at home at being wrong. When one feels right, one must question that so that one does not get entrenched.
2. Experiment.
Tinker, tweak, test out. Get out of the stigma of error and fear of failure. Welcome change as an improvement. Learn new methods, new procedures and techniques. Test them out.
3. Sharpen your observation skills, recognition skills, cognitive skills and learn to conclude from the latest information.
I had a first-hand experience of this the other day I was buying a pair of shoes. We were out for a walk and only had a credit card with us. When we passed by a shoe store, the bargains were just too good to let go, so we went in. When we paid, our card did not work. After observing how they do things in the other stores, I watched, though, and asked the store lady to try out again and guided her through the process. She was not adaptable. Guess who it was? It worked, and I am enjoying my new pair.
4. Have or develop an open scientific mind.
A scientific mind questions existing beliefs, theories, practices, seeks answers, patterns and relationships, divergence, facts, and information and can be improved to respond to new situations. Always test out accepted beliefs in your industry. You do NOT need to be a scientist, but you must keep asking 'WHY".
5. Challenge what you always thought was right, what you have always believed in. Label it wrong to look at how you can make it more compelling given the new environment. This fixation is the problem with many of the great thinkers or professionals. They have arrived at theories, answers giving most of their energy into it that they are no longer able or willing to give those up or question those given a new situation. They will keep applying what they have previously done and got recognition. Why change?
6. Teach yourself to think ahead.
Practice until you have improved your skill at spotting emerging trends in the media, fashion, and production.
7. Develop resourcefulness.
Challenge yourself to do things given only specific resources. What do you do? Show initiative and self-reliance. Look for new ways of doing things more effectively. Be comfortable to improvise, adapting or changing as you go-ahead.
8. Respond more effectively to challenges and unexpected changes.
Limit your whine and blame. Instil in yourself and your kids that whining is not acceptable. Instead, look at what went wrong and learn from this so you don't do it again.
9. Be curious.
Learn and keep learning. Keep current. Be at home in variety, in differences, in newness.
10. See the whole picture and be positive in your attitude.
Be upbeat. Hey, laugh at yourself while you're learning not to mess up again in the same way.
11. Train your mind to think quickly and to work under pressure.
12. Take on challenges even at short notice.
See how you can make the changes work and not keep giving reasons why the changes won't work.
13. Get out of your comfort zone.
Do something you have not done before.
14. In school, take a course that is way different from your area of concentration.
If you're into computers, take Music or Singing or Acting.
15. Know your why.
Volatile times demand greater adaptability on your part, but as you respond to the challenge, don't forget to stick to your values, what you stand for and commit to yourself.

Individuals who cultivate a variety of skills seem brighter, more energetic and more adaptable than those who know how to do one thing only.

— Robert Shea

How do you think should adaptability be improved?

You must have your own ideas on how to develop adaptability from your own experience. Please feel free to share in the comments below.

© 2018 Mary Norton


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