It is spring in Minnesota and it is a time where we notice the lengthening of daylight after a long winter. As a result, I am reminded that the sun rises and sets at different times each day. In addition to the varied time, the sun is also moving each day to a different orientation in the sky. Over the year I see the sunset move every day.

The amazing thing is that we see the sun as a constant, never changing, and yet it changes position and time every single day. This seems paradoxical, and yet it is an accurate description of reality. I am struck by the organizational habit we have of not wanting to change position because it will set a precedent. Or the organizational struggle we have adapting to change when nature is changing all the time. Why is adaptative capacity such a challenge?


Organizational Lessons from the Sun

One lesson is that nature (and the sun) assumes that change is normal. It is just the way it is. The shifting of how much daylight we have, or the position of the sun is unremarkable. The identity of the sun remains constant. The sun doesn’t worry if changing position will create a problem for its identity or brand.  

Why do our organizations start with the idea that they are static – that change is not normal, or welcomed by the organization or its employees? If we were to see our organizations as they really are, we would see life and adaptation occurring naturally. People adapt to other colleagues’ emotions, they adapt the directives from their leaders, they shift the way they work with customers and clients, and they see changes happening in the external environment.  Would we see these naturally occurring adaptations if we started looking for them instead of worrying if we could adapt?

The fact that organizational leaders see adaptative capacity as a significant challenge today suggests that there may be a problem in how we design, think, and lead our organization. Here are some reflective questions for consideration.

  • Do our processes focus on control? Many of the HR and organizational processes for getting things done in an organization are designed to control things and hold employees accountable. When we hold employees accountable to position duties in their job description, and that job description doesn’t continue to evolve, we are setting up a dynamic where employees know they will be evaluated based on their non-adaptive job description. So, the organization is unconsciously designing a process based in control, not adaptation.
  • Do we have rules that diminish natural adaptation? For example, do we have a habit of not deviating from past policies or decisions? Is setting a new precedent something to resist? Are we organizationally aware of how these habits and thoughts hinder the natural adaptive capacity that a living system has?
  • Do we lead from an assumption that all direction comes from the top? Our organizational structures can reinforce top down leadership. If we assume that people require direction, we will diminish the adaptive capacity of the entire organization. Nature’s ability to adapt starts with its ability to self-organize. If our leadership structure discourages self-organization of employees, we will cripple our organization’s adaptive capacity.


Think like the sun

These are just a few of the ways we unconsciously hinder our organization’s adaptation. The typical approach to becoming more adaptive as an organization is to create an initiative to reinforce adaptation. The problem is that a new program doesn’t start with the assumption that we could do this if we just got out of our own way. Look first to what is stopping adaptive capacity from manifesting in our organization. By reflecting on our processes, need for control, and viewing our organization as static vs. a living system, we will learn how to shift our organizational culture.

Dr. Kathleen E. Allen is the author of Leading from the Roots: Nature Inspired Leadership Lessons for Today’s World (2019) and President of Allen and Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in leadership, innovation, and organizational change. She writes a blog on leadership and organizations that describes a new paradigm of leadership that is based in lessons from nature and living systems at