Leadering: Why Visionary Leaders Are Investing In Adaptability Quotient
“a collection of capacities that improve our ability to make more confident decisions in circumstances that are less static and reliable” — Amin Toufani
I still love tangible, hold-in-your-hand books. And while I miss the serendipity of walking through a huge bookstore — championing each author for working so hard to get their ideas out into the world — it’s hard not to appreciate the joy of having a new title or two (or sometimes three), plopped right on my doorstep. Today I am snuggled in with a cup of tea and my two latest gifts to myself: Gene Keys and Blockchain Chicken Farm. Wildly different genres, both passionately reaffirm the very real power we hold in being human. And in a few days, I’ll also receive Teeming by evolutionary biologist (and recent Femme Futurist interviewee), Tamsin Woolley-Barker, on what bees and birds have to teach us about adaptivity and creating, as she describes it, infinite wealth on a finite planet.
I buy all these books and invest time talking with and learning from a wide range of people, because as the world keeps shifting, I need to be able to absorb new information. I want to feel confident navigating new terrain versus trying unsuccessfully to replicate outdated practices of the past. Currently, experts and forecasters are reluctant to predict anything more than 400 days out. Why? “Because over the last 20 or 30 years, much of the world has gone from being complicated to being complex — which means that yes, there are patterns, but they don’t repeat themselves regularly. It means that very small changes can make a disproportionate impact. And it means that expertise won’t always suffice, because the system just keeps changing too fast”, as CEO, author, professor and frequent TED speaker Margaret Heffernan notes.
Today we cannot wait for decisions or direction from a few empowered leaders or small select committees (or even from just one author). We need to collect, synthesize and prioritize a lot of new information quickly, which means that organizations with rigid bureaucracy and no clarity of purpose often miss windows of learning and opportunity. As we transform our organizations, we need people on board who are able to embrace change and willing to experiment with new ideas. As I recently discussed with the Chief Strategy Officer of Verizon, Rima Qureshi, beyond concepts of IQ (intelligence quotient) and EQ (emotional intelligence quotient), we must now develop our AQ (adaptability quotient) — both as individuals and organizations.
Exponential economist and Singularity University colleague, Amin Toufani, explains Adaptability Quotient as “a collection of capacities that improve our ability to make more confident decisions in circumstances that are less static and reliable — the new norm of our quickly shifting exponential world.”
Traditional management structures are built with a top-down approach designed for rigid control and consistent, reliable, “flawless” delivery. Large corporations spent years researching, testing and rolling out new products with elaborate marketing support. But given the pressure now to respond faster, visionary business leaders are reevaluating and restructuring every process internally and externally. To foster constant innovation, we need a Leadering mindset that accepts surety will no longer come from having all the answers, but instead from asking different kinds of questions and by building new capacities for constant experimentation and responsive action.
From Replicators to Navigators: Adaptability Quotient in Action
Decades of training taught us there was a way to do things — via “best practices” and “Six Sigma” — that created security, reduced risk, and ensured consistent, efficient delivery; we were groomed to be highly skilled replicators. In a fast-changing world, however, we now need new practices that support us as fluid navigators. Business writer and enterprise consultant, John Hagel, describes it as shifting from organizational cultures of efficiency to cultures of learning.
The 2020 pandemic response showed us how quickly we may have to adapt: In just one phenomenal example, a March 2020 headline incredulously reported that the New York City public school district worked to move 1.1 million children (the majority in low-income homes) to remote learning in a matter of weeks. Despite a summer spent “planning” for this new reality, when classes resumed in the fall, every superintendent had to continue making big decisions quickly with lots of input but very little consistent data or past practice to rely on. They and their teachers are each trying new experiments — from barriers around desks to hybrid schedules; one enterprising teacher is even using plastic inner-tubes to keep kindergartners a safe distance from one another. They are inventing, learning, and responding in real-time.
Similarly, to be better prepared for the future ahead, Marriott ditched relying on customer surveys and expensive focus groups to instead purchase a property of their own to specifically collect immediate, more holistic feedback via their Innovation Lab hotel rooms. These feature “Beta buttons” on the walls, tables, and iPads throughout the room to allow guests to give a quick thumbs up to pleasant experiences and a thumbs down to frustrating ones. Cultivating its enterprise AQ this way gives Marriott teams the ability to advocate for and roll-out changes more quickly and confidently throughout the large network of properties they manage (versus directly own).
Given that dynamic innovation is iterative and ideas can come from anyone, how can we incentivize curiosity throughout an organization while constraining the risk?
Booking.com has embraced a culture of experimentation and curiosity that allows employees to test anything, any time with a small batch of site visitors — without management’s permission. At any one moment, there might be multiple experiments being conducted to such an extent that no two landing pages are ever the same. Results can be monitored to see if something is working or not within two hours, which enables them to make fast decisions and quickly advance improvements or collect new insight.
It’s not just Booking.com; Mark Okerstrom, the CEO of Expedia Group, has described that, “At any one time, we’re running hundreds, if not thousands, of concurrent experiments, involving millions of visitors. Because of this, we don’t have to guess what customers want; we have the ability to run the most massive ‘customer surveys’ that exist, again and again, to have them tell us what they want.”
The lesson is that it’s not so important whether any one experiment succeeds or fails but how decisions are adjudicated under uncertainty. Being adaptable and receiving more immediate, less expensive feedback allows us to look at failures not as costly mistakes but simply as opportunities for learning.
Survival Of The Most Adaptive
As business management professor Leon C. Megginson wrote more than fifty years ago: “According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
The point we often miss in our understanding of adaptation is that this is not about survival of the fittest individual (or entity), but rather it is about finding the best fit within an ecosystem in order to maintain a healthy equilibrium for the whole. This means that for society to successfully navigate the changes ahead, we must ensure both individuals and the systems which support our lives — schools, government, industry — develop these “adaptive capacities” and that collectively we address imbalances in much more holistic, caring ways.
We cannot possibly know it all anymore, so once we make peace with that, confronting our own blind spots and our long-reinforced, ego-driven habits also become critical business skills.
The more we invest in developing our Adaptability Quotient, the more likely we are to spot and respond to new, growing openings, such as Walmart’s fast decision to partner with Oracle in a bid for U.S. TikTok rights. And as one line of business becomes more vulnerable, it is possible to seed new growth in another. Think of Apple; while iPhone sales are slowing, they are making a tremendous amount of money on services — a new line of business for them — accelerating their growth from a $1 trillion (that’s with a T) company to a $2 trillion valuation in the space of just two years.
Wonder, diversity, humility, empathy and collaboration, flatten organizations. That, combined with a strong sense of purpose, are the kinds of practices that strengthen our Adaptability Quotient, ensuring that we stay relevant and all thrive in a world of increasing complexity… and growing opportunity.