The Adaptive Organization: Fostering Change in Five Areas

Published: Jan 24, 2019

In May 2009, Toffler Associates brought together a group of public and private sector senior executives to discuss the process of creating adaptive organizations—organizations that are able to sense the need for change and undertake it successfully. The discussion drew on several years of recent Toffler Associates engagements with clients in both sectors helping them adapt their strategies, structure, processes, people, and technology to challenges and opportunities in today’s environment. The focus was on aligning changes in these five areas so that an organization can remain relevant and effective.

People: The Benefit of Youth

The “people” area addresses hiring practices and human resource management.

One organization noted the importance and impact of awarding positions of influence to younger employees. While less tested and experienced than their more mature counterparts, today’s youth works more collaboratively, thinks more experimentally, and uses technology more comfortably.

Younger workers also provide a needed influx of energy and fresh thought to an organization. In addition to experience and institutional knowledge, organizations need new perspectives and dynamism to help ensure success.

“I have to bring in the young people who think about the world differently, but then I also have to listen to them and let them be part of shaping the organization’s strategy and its future,” said one organization leader. “We’ve got to be willing to bring in a diversity of thought,” he said, adding that young employees also must be put into a structure and a set of processes that allow their fresh ideas to have an impact.

Process: Fostering Collaboration

The “process” area addresses an enterprise’s operating procedures.

In studying its operation, one company has found that a top-down-only approach to management is an increasingly slow, ineffective method of working and adapting. Employees often view management directives conceived and implemented this way as disruptive and generally do not greet such approaches with enthusiasm. “You can’t lead a major, driven-from-the-top strategy activity in a diverse business model culture,” said a discussion participant. “It just can’t work.”

Instead, this company is cultivating a collaborative culture in which employees can work together and draw on each other’s curiosity and creativity—following leads and “connecting the dots” to suggest what the management imperatives and alternatives might be. Leadership is finding that this results in more productive work and better outcomes.

While employees often want to work collaboratively, noted one participant, they are often mired in “an Industrial Age bureaucracy that’s hierarchical and wants to get a singular decision as opposed to a collaborative decision.” To avoid this trap, another company described how they solicit anonymous employee questions via a Website and promises a 48-hour response. “They can be anything from ‘what is the chief executive’s succession plan?’ to ‘Why can’t we have more paper towel racks in the bathroom?’ But they are constant and they come from all facets of the organization,” explained an executive.

Strategy: Leadership Principles Over Directives

The “strategy” area addresses the leadership and management theories that guide the operation of the organization.

One company working with Toffler Associates’ help to cultivate a more adaptive working environment has asked its leadership to cede some of the strategy-making power—a difficult proposition and an obvious affront to old standards but one with great potential payoff.

Traditional notions of leadership place executives in firm control of dictating an exact course of action for an organization. In this enterprise, however, executives are less focused on being the sole source of strategy and more focused on developing a culture of innovation. “Create an environment where people love coming to work and give you their best every day because they feel empowered to champion and carry the ideas of the goal line themselves,” advised one participant.

The leadership of this organization is internalizing the idea that it cannot dictate every initiative. Rather, management is primarily concerned with determining and promoting an organization-wide guiding principle and vision, empowering each employee to fulfill it as he or she sees fit. As one executive said, “If you have a common vision and a common mission and the people can see how their work is linked to some larger good, then a real transition will occur.”

Structure: Creating an Open Collaborative Workforce

The “structure” area addresses the way different areas of the organization work together.

In the Industrial Age, work environments were hierarchical—the chain of command was clear and linear, and each employee did only the tasks that fell within his or her specific job assignment. An information-driven society demands that the workforce be structured more efficiently and in a manner that can better adapt to changing circumstances.

To make the best use of employees and their talents, one organization is adopting a networked, open, and collaborative workforce structure. The model it is adopting involves relinquishing exclusive control of its talent in favor of a more inclusive model that draws on the best talent available—internal and external. Rather than being separated by department and job description, employees in this organization form networks made up of generalists and a smaller number of specialists. When necessary, this full-time workforce is assisted by a reserve of contingency workers—experts who are on-call and available. Contingency workers are called in when the organization requires a fresh perspective andhighly specialized expertise or skills that can’t be learned internally in the required timeframe.

Adaptive organizations hire for interpersonal, teaming and leadership abilities— people who bring a range of ideas to discussions and tasks, not just specific competencies. Therefore, the emphasis should be on hiring first-rate minds. Proficiencies can be learned, but organizations today and tomorrow need thinkers who can work intuitively, seeing scenarios and patterns where only pieces of information exist.

Technology: Enabling Knowledge Transfer

The “technology” area addresses how organizations use information systems, communications systems, and other tools to enable business operations.

In this area, many organizations make the same mistake: viewing technology as infrastructure rather than as an enabler of knowledge transfer among organization members. This creates a “work-around” culture in which members use technology but don’t leverage it in such a way that it can help truly lead the organization.

One government organization has struggled trying to provide its people with the tools they need to perform effectively as the agency’s mission and environment change. For example, they had evolved their business model to allow employees to work from home or in field offices closer to their customers but have provided these workers with outmoded computers and mobile phones, making it difficult to remain up-to-date on management guidance from headquarters. They also found that one particular knowledge management system was so vital to the organization’s strategy that losing it risked mission failure, but that their contracting and other processes were so archaic that they could only apply patch after patch instead of installing a state-of-the-art replacement. “We needed a top-to-bottom assessment of what the roadblocks are to modernizing our IT systems and a plan for adapting them to be ready for what the future demands,” said an executive.

In another example, a U.S. military organization outfitted troops overseas with complex electronic interpreters that would capture speech and translate it into English. The problem with these $10,000 machines, however, was that they only facilitated one-way communication—they didn’t translate English into the native language, so soldiers could listen to but not speak to nationals. Improvising in the field, a group of Marines developed a picture board that allowed military personnel and nationals to communicate pictorially. Each board cost only $10 and improved communication substantially.

In both examples, the technology in question would have been immeasurably more effective had its users recognized its true purpose: communicating knowledge efficiently and effectively. Whether it is a case of too little technology (as with the outdated equipment) or too much (as with the ineffective translators), adaptiveness suffers and success is at risk.