leadership, Startup Advice

It’s time to flex your adaptability muscle

John Halpin /

“Everything changes, and nothing stands still.”

That’s not a quote from some digital-age philosopher or business guru, but Heraclitus, a Greek thinker who wandered around mountains musing on the state of the world.

But 2,500 years later his words could not be more apt. Turning the challenge of change into real opportunity is a measure of your adaptability. And that is something that requires practice, as much as planning.

Most things in life that we value require dedication, effort and repetition. Your ‘adaptability muscle’ is exactly the same. It’s that combination of resilience mixed with a growth mindset that’s pushing you to better yourself. To try something new.  

The good news for anyone thinking their adaptability muscle might have atrophied after too long in the same place, is that it is something you can build up again. It isn’t dissimilar to building a physiological muscle. When you extend your muscle, you’re pushing it to see how far it will stretch. How strong it is. How far you can go. This is what Dr Carol Dwerk calls our ‘growth mindset’ — our desire to learn and push ourselves into uncomfortable places.

When you contract the muscle, we’re protecting ourselves. Making sure it doesn’t snap; recognising your limits. This is our mental resilience; the benefit we derive from experience and experimentation.

Your adaptability muscle needs continually extension and contraction to grow strong.

We need to continually flex our adaptability muscle if we want to grow stronger.

Unfortunately, at some point lots of us stop working it out like we used to — which again sounds a lot like our physiological muscles. A belief sets in that it’s strong enough. That we know enough about our world and the need to experiment isn’t as great as it once was. That’s because we’ve found our match, we can relax now and let everything get a little bit … wobbly.

Our growth mindset starts to switch to a fixed mindset. Our perspective of the world and our role in it starts to get cemented in place.

At the same time, this reduction in experimentation starts to make us timid. We become afraid of taking risks. The result is even small risks start to look terrifying. Our ability to bounce back from failure decreases. That’s our resilience weakening.

Sound familiar?  

The funny thing is I could as easily be talking about an individual or an organisation. They both tend to operate the same way.

Startup businesses are built on the principle of experimentation. Trying new things, seeing what sticks, admitting what doesn’t, pivoting to a new reality. That is a growth mindset in action. There are failures, but those failures are relatively small and common because they’re constant. So the startup’s resilience is strong. And it’s essential if that business is going to get out of startup mode.

The challenge for most businesses is once you know how you’re meeting a consumer need, you focus on becoming proficient at it. Without realising it, you’re switching into a fixed mindset: ‘this is what we do and how we do it’. You’re already closing yourself off from opportunity.

Opportunity is what business is about.

Our experience with Netflix showed us that this mindset isn’t limited to small startups. It can fuel massive organisations if you find the appropriate balance of growth and resilience to keep chasing opportunity; to focus on changing the future, not dwelling on the past. Or as Netflix founder Reed Hastings puts it: “New day, new mountain”.

So how do you get back into a growth mindset at an organisational level?

The truth is that you will have different levels of adaptability throughout the business so you’re going to need to do a little work to find out who’s ready to hit the gym again. Start with those who already show signs that they’re up for the challenge. Get them on board. Use their influence on others to both demonstrate and coach the adaptability traits you want to spread.

Here’s a few tips to help you identify your crew:

  • Different teams or functions may be more likely to embrace an experimental mindset by virtue of their role, but you can’t judge a book by its cover. You may think that your product development teams are naturally open to new ideas, but you may find the most dynamic team in your organisation is actually the finance department; they’re open to new software, constantly experimenting to find new processes and means of saving the business money.  
  • Look for your connectors. Those people that bring different people and parts of the business together. Encourage them to do more of what comes naturally.
  • Age has nothing to do with it. Senior management are often the most open to trying new approaches because they can see the need to evolve and change. Similarly, less experienced team members are less fixed in their beliefs about how you have to tackle problems. They also have less to lose. The watch out is middle management; they’re far enough advanced that they expect others to earn their stripes the way they did, and they have enough to lose that they don’t want things to change too much.
  • New employees tend to start in a growth mindset because they’re naturally back in experimentation mode, finding the boundaries of their new role. Their challenge is that they’re yet to build trust with existing employees to create influence.

When you’re a kid, adaptability comes relatively easily. Your experience of the world is limited so you’re in a constant adaptability mode. Sometimes you stub your toe and it hurts, but with a little encouragement from mum and dad you pick yourself back up and go again. There’s so much to learn, so much you don’t understand about how the world works. We’re at our adaptability peak.

Channel your inner child and start to question and challenge things again, and you’ll soon start to build your adaptability muscle back up to be fit for purpose.

There’s a lot to we can learn from our younger selves.

NOW READ: Which curiosity mindset do you have?

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John Halpin

John Halpin is senior partner at strategic consultancy Unthink. 

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