I recently received an email from a colleague that I have known for over 40 years. He was responding to my blog on Tensions are Promising and mentioned he is still learning how to live into the tensions that exist in the web of relationships he has at work. That triggered an insight about all the changes he and I have lived through in the last 40 years. The internet, the advent of social media, the level of complexity, the accelerating disruptions from the external environment, growth of knowledge workers in our organizations, artificial intelligence, and how our thinking has changed or been forced to change as a result.

For example, here are a few adaptations that I have made in the way I think.

I used to think…

Now I understand…

  • that problems were simple or complicated, but if you analyzed the parts enough, you could solve them.
  • problems mutate and don’t stand still. Solving problems today also means adapting solutions and best practices to fit what is changing.
  • that events were discrete and disconnected from other events.
  • that events and actions are all connected and the way we solve a problem today generates the agenda of problems we have tomorrow.
  • that organizations were static and didn’t like change.
  • that organizations are constantly changing and dynamic – we just don’t see it.
  • that organizations were inert and machine-like.
  • that organizations are living systems and bring all the challenges and complexities (and emotions) that life entails.
  • that people didn’t adapt to change unless forced.
  • that people adapt all the time, but we don’t always acknowledge how often and how well we adapt.


Adaptation as a way of being

Parents are a primary example of learning and adaptation. They start with a newborn and corresponding expectations of how things are going to go. And almost from the very beginning, they realize that they need to keep learning and adapting in the process of parenting their child. And just when they think they have it figured out with their first child, the second one comes along and is entirely different than the first and the process starts all over again.

Parenting is just one example of our capacity to adapt. The path may not be smooth, but we do learn, and we do adapt to what’s in front of us. And if we ignore the reality, there is always feedback to remind us that what we are doing isn’t working.

I believe that adaptation is a natural way of being. Nature demonstrates life’s capacity to adapt million times a day. It is designed to adapt, and it is this capacity that has allowed life to thrive on the earth for over 3.8 billion years. So, if adaptation is natural, why do our organizations struggle to adapt to changing times or disruptive technologies?

I believe the answer can be found in our collective attachment to processes and form. When we become attached to a specific way of working, or a certain way of thinking, we start protecting that one way and hamper our natural ability to release what is known in favor of what the environment is telling us. There is always information that lets us know when something we are holding onto isn’t working any more. The problem is we don’t always listen. When this occurs, the feedback gets louder and more painful. Eventually, we must confront what isn’t working individually and organizationally.  

However, if we began to see ourselves highly adaptive, and looked at the number of ways we have successfully adapted to change in our personal and professional lives, we might start seeing our ability to adapt in a new light. We might realize that we do this all the time. And it might help us ask better questions when we resist. Like:

  • Why am I resisting this challenge when I easily adapt to others?
  • What is interfering with our organization’s ability to adapt?
  • What if we celebrated how well we adapt instead of focusing on what we are struggling with?

If we ask these questions and others, we might begin to appreciate the unseen capacity of adaptation that exists in each of us and our organizations.

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 www.kathleenallen.net