Ready! Set! Adapt!

It is by now a truism that the market for “talent” in the private sector is changing. In the old days, one felt poised for success with an MBA or some other related degree. These were indicators of intelligence, and a sufficient knowledge basis to get started. But if intelligence is the ability to take in and remember things, we have a problem. Our highly intelligent hire will spend his or her time taking in data and remembering things.

So what is missing? The word is “adaptability”. It is different than just being a smartypants. The adaptable actor instead uses knowledge at hand in a strategic manner to achieve results.  Why has this become so important? Because the conventional wisdom is shifting from “power is in big institutions” to “power is in adapting to inflection points”. I use the phrase “inflection points” in the way that Peter Drucker did — they are moments when the basis that people use to make buying decisions shifts, creating the need to adjust business models.

Here is the zillion dollar question – can we learn how to be more adaptive? Certainly, we can learn to appreciate adaptability as a value. We can see it in case studies, for example. Officer training has done this for a long, long time. And to a certain extent, we can break adaptive behavior into components. Such as motivation, curiosity, insight, engagement, and determination (or resilience). HBR argues that firms should make their next generation leadership hiring and training decisions based on these criteria. But we would be mistaken to think of adaptability as an individual trait. We are adaptive when we believe the social context rewards adapting. We reject new ideas — even good ones — when our values (derived from group interaction) suggest that they are dangerous. So, if we wish to promote adaptability, there is a corollary set of social skills that should be nurtured along with new norms for how groups should function.

How do we nurture these social skills? One thing is clear. We do so only when we move on from traditional notions of individual identity. Ego, as described by Freud, is not a medical term. It is a survival tool that has proved valuable in a hostile world. It rewards who we are rather than the persons whom we create.


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