Creating a new energy for adaptive change

Creating a new energy for adaptive change

Creating a new energy for adaptive change

Apr 29, 2024

Matt Ede, Strategy Director

Six ways employees can thrive in shifting states of transformation.

Human beings don’t like change. We’re hardwired to feel most secure in environments that are predictable. Where we can see patterns. Where what’s being asked of us is clear and within our range of skills, comprehension and capability.

This is probably most true in the workplace. Yet right now, businesses are having to keep pace with multiple, unprecedented portfolios of change with little differentiation or organisation. And it’s taking a toll on the workforce.

Fatigue is setting in as employees lose both energy and appetite to pursue change. Change is seen as something to endure or ‘survive’, rather than to be embraced – creating tensions that put vital change efforts at risk. Remember that famous McKinsey stat about 70% of transformations failing? That was before Covid, George Floyd, War in Europe, the Cost-of-Living Crisis and ChatGPT.

So, what can businesses do about it?

The answer may lie in how – as employers and employees – we frame states of change and understand how they work. Specifically, in how we differentiate between ‘technical’ and ‘adaptive’ change.

Technical change vs. adaptive change

Most of us will be more familiar (and feel more comfortable) with technical change. It is clear and structured. It has a start and end point. And the gap between the two is definable and measurable. It’s a change to a organisational structure or adapting to using a new piece of technology. These technical changes can be plentiful and, often, challenging to embrace. But they are not outside our capability or experience.

But what about adaptive change? This is far more complex and evolutionary by nature, defined by having an unknown end state and no fixed, measurable approach to achieving it.

It requires humans to operate in the unknown. To iterate, take risks and go against established dominant system or established ways of operating. The adoption of AI, the future of work or addressing climate change are all good examples of change framed by an adaptive lens. This change is taking up increasing amounts of time, energy, attention and investment.

Organisations aren’t doing a great job of self-realising the changes they’re experiencing or managing, or of defining and building the conditions for each. There are several levers – both practical and academic – that businesses can lean on to help them face into adaptive challenges more sustainably and successfully.

1. Build security to increase acceptance of personal loss

By its very nature, change threatens our status quo. It requires individuals to accept and be comfortable that they may lose something – power, position, connection, belonging and more. And employers must be sensitive to that and design for it.

2. Show that change brings opportunity

With that in mind, rather than associate change with fear and loss, how can you frame it as bringing new experiences and possibilities? Evidence how it could be more fulfilling than the current environment. Think about how you motivate and reward vulnerability and bravery.

3. Share stories, insight and perspective

Context is critical – and it will keep evolving. Being able to understand and connect with the shifting landscape through storytelling and data will help employees to visualise the journey – and the benefits. Be open about failure but share regularly and seek disruptive perspectives.

4. Break long-term goals into shorter goals

With adaptive change, employees need tangible goals to help organise and break down their focus and actions. You can’t drink from a firehose or get your head around the magnitude of what you’re designing for. These goals need to be regularly sense-checked and readjusted as the context continues to evolve.

5. Reinforce a sense of value

To thrive in adaptive change environments, employees need to feel secure in their qualities and ongoing value. Remove the worry, wherever possible, that they aren’t relevant. Find ways to connect their today with tomorrow’s needs. It’s important to reinforce this through conversations, as well as any contextual storytelling.

6. Acknowledge visible and invisible systems

On a more academic level, there are two systems in play that affect human behaviour through change. Visible systems, such as hierarchy or values, and invisible systems, such as what really happens and is known and experienced. The influence of both is critical – and is explored further in theories and texts such as those quoted below.

So, why does change challenge companies so much?

Significant change in our working lives – be that new processes, new propositions, new structures or new ways of working – will always challenge us. Magnify our natural human instincts across thousands of employees, and it’s no wonder managing operational change can be so destabilising. Change is messy, as are people. We’re unpredictable and bring unending divergent experiences and motivations.

Today, corporates are balancing volumes of technical change with volumes of adaptive change.  Employees are caught in the middle. The effort expended to execute this is enormous – yet most companies aren't set up to successfully navigate this level of complexity.

Ultimately, for people, teams and managers to thrive in an adaptive state, we need to retrain our collective muscle and mindset around a perpetual evolution of topics, practises and environments.

If leaders and boardrooms don’t recognise this, the already myriad risks to the success of any transformation project will only be compounded. Especially if businesses continue to treat the behavioural, adaptive challenges facing their people with a purely technical approach.


Need practical solutions for adaptive problems? We’d love to help… Get in touch.
Recommended reading:

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

C. Otto Scharmer, Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges

Six ways employees can thrive in shifting states of transformation.

Human beings don’t like change. We’re hardwired to feel most secure in environments that are predictable. Where we can see patterns. Where what’s being asked of us is clear and within our range of skills, comprehension and capability.

This is probably most true in the workplace. Yet right now, businesses are having to keep pace with multiple, unprecedented portfolios of change with little differentiation or organisation. And it’s taking a toll on the workforce.

Fatigue is setting in as employees lose both energy and appetite to pursue change. Change is seen as something to endure or ‘survive’, rather than to be embraced – creating tensions that put vital change efforts at risk. Remember that famous McKinsey stat about 70% of transformations failing? That was before Covid, George Floyd, War in Europe, the Cost-of-Living Crisis and ChatGPT.

So, what can businesses do about it?

The answer may lie in how – as employers and employees – we frame states of change and understand how they work. Specifically, in how we differentiate between ‘technical’ and ‘adaptive’ change.

Technical change vs. adaptive change

Most of us will be more familiar (and feel more comfortable) with technical change. It is clear and structured. It has a start and end point. And the gap between the two is definable and measurable. It’s a change to a organisational structure or adapting to using a new piece of technology. These technical changes can be plentiful and, often, challenging to embrace. But they are not outside our capability or experience.

But what about adaptive change? This is far more complex and evolutionary by nature, defined by having an unknown end state and no fixed, measurable approach to achieving it.

It requires humans to operate in the unknown. To iterate, take risks and go against established dominant system or established ways of operating. The adoption of AI, the future of work or addressing climate change are all good examples of change framed by an adaptive lens. This change is taking up increasing amounts of time, energy, attention and investment.

Organisations aren’t doing a great job of self-realising the changes they’re experiencing or managing, or of defining and building the conditions for each. There are several levers – both practical and academic – that businesses can lean on to help them face into adaptive challenges more sustainably and successfully.

1. Build security to increase acceptance of personal loss

By its very nature, change threatens our status quo. It requires individuals to accept and be comfortable that they may lose something – power, position, connection, belonging and more. And employers must be sensitive to that and design for it.

2. Show that change brings opportunity

With that in mind, rather than associate change with fear and loss, how can you frame it as bringing new experiences and possibilities? Evidence how it could be more fulfilling than the current environment. Think about how you motivate and reward vulnerability and bravery.

3. Share stories, insight and perspective

Context is critical – and it will keep evolving. Being able to understand and connect with the shifting landscape through storytelling and data will help employees to visualise the journey – and the benefits. Be open about failure but share regularly and seek disruptive perspectives.

4. Break long-term goals into shorter goals

With adaptive change, employees need tangible goals to help organise and break down their focus and actions. You can’t drink from a firehose or get your head around the magnitude of what you’re designing for. These goals need to be regularly sense-checked and readjusted as the context continues to evolve.

5. Reinforce a sense of value

To thrive in adaptive change environments, employees need to feel secure in their qualities and ongoing value. Remove the worry, wherever possible, that they aren’t relevant. Find ways to connect their today with tomorrow’s needs. It’s important to reinforce this through conversations, as well as any contextual storytelling.

6. Acknowledge visible and invisible systems

On a more academic level, there are two systems in play that affect human behaviour through change. Visible systems, such as hierarchy or values, and invisible systems, such as what really happens and is known and experienced. The influence of both is critical – and is explored further in theories and texts such as those quoted below.

So, why does change challenge companies so much?

Significant change in our working lives – be that new processes, new propositions, new structures or new ways of working – will always challenge us. Magnify our natural human instincts across thousands of employees, and it’s no wonder managing operational change can be so destabilising. Change is messy, as are people. We’re unpredictable and bring unending divergent experiences and motivations.

Today, corporates are balancing volumes of technical change with volumes of adaptive change.  Employees are caught in the middle. The effort expended to execute this is enormous – yet most companies aren't set up to successfully navigate this level of complexity.

Ultimately, for people, teams and managers to thrive in an adaptive state, we need to retrain our collective muscle and mindset around a perpetual evolution of topics, practises and environments.

If leaders and boardrooms don’t recognise this, the already myriad risks to the success of any transformation project will only be compounded. Especially if businesses continue to treat the behavioural, adaptive challenges facing their people with a purely technical approach.


Need practical solutions for adaptive problems? We’d love to help… Get in touch.
Recommended reading:

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

C. Otto Scharmer, Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges

Six ways employees can thrive in shifting states of transformation.

Human beings don’t like change. We’re hardwired to feel most secure in environments that are predictable. Where we can see patterns. Where what’s being asked of us is clear and within our range of skills, comprehension and capability.

This is probably most true in the workplace. Yet right now, businesses are having to keep pace with multiple, unprecedented portfolios of change with little differentiation or organisation. And it’s taking a toll on the workforce.

Fatigue is setting in as employees lose both energy and appetite to pursue change. Change is seen as something to endure or ‘survive’, rather than to be embraced – creating tensions that put vital change efforts at risk. Remember that famous McKinsey stat about 70% of transformations failing? That was before Covid, George Floyd, War in Europe, the Cost-of-Living Crisis and ChatGPT.

So, what can businesses do about it?

The answer may lie in how – as employers and employees – we frame states of change and understand how they work. Specifically, in how we differentiate between ‘technical’ and ‘adaptive’ change.

Technical change vs. adaptive change

Most of us will be more familiar (and feel more comfortable) with technical change. It is clear and structured. It has a start and end point. And the gap between the two is definable and measurable. It’s a change to a organisational structure or adapting to using a new piece of technology. These technical changes can be plentiful and, often, challenging to embrace. But they are not outside our capability or experience.

But what about adaptive change? This is far more complex and evolutionary by nature, defined by having an unknown end state and no fixed, measurable approach to achieving it.

It requires humans to operate in the unknown. To iterate, take risks and go against established dominant system or established ways of operating. The adoption of AI, the future of work or addressing climate change are all good examples of change framed by an adaptive lens. This change is taking up increasing amounts of time, energy, attention and investment.

Organisations aren’t doing a great job of self-realising the changes they’re experiencing or managing, or of defining and building the conditions for each. There are several levers – both practical and academic – that businesses can lean on to help them face into adaptive challenges more sustainably and successfully.

1. Build security to increase acceptance of personal loss

By its very nature, change threatens our status quo. It requires individuals to accept and be comfortable that they may lose something – power, position, connection, belonging and more. And employers must be sensitive to that and design for it.

2. Show that change brings opportunity

With that in mind, rather than associate change with fear and loss, how can you frame it as bringing new experiences and possibilities? Evidence how it could be more fulfilling than the current environment. Think about how you motivate and reward vulnerability and bravery.

3. Share stories, insight and perspective

Context is critical – and it will keep evolving. Being able to understand and connect with the shifting landscape through storytelling and data will help employees to visualise the journey – and the benefits. Be open about failure but share regularly and seek disruptive perspectives.

4. Break long-term goals into shorter goals

With adaptive change, employees need tangible goals to help organise and break down their focus and actions. You can’t drink from a firehose or get your head around the magnitude of what you’re designing for. These goals need to be regularly sense-checked and readjusted as the context continues to evolve.

5. Reinforce a sense of value

To thrive in adaptive change environments, employees need to feel secure in their qualities and ongoing value. Remove the worry, wherever possible, that they aren’t relevant. Find ways to connect their today with tomorrow’s needs. It’s important to reinforce this through conversations, as well as any contextual storytelling.

6. Acknowledge visible and invisible systems

On a more academic level, there are two systems in play that affect human behaviour through change. Visible systems, such as hierarchy or values, and invisible systems, such as what really happens and is known and experienced. The influence of both is critical – and is explored further in theories and texts such as those quoted below.

So, why does change challenge companies so much?

Significant change in our working lives – be that new processes, new propositions, new structures or new ways of working – will always challenge us. Magnify our natural human instincts across thousands of employees, and it’s no wonder managing operational change can be so destabilising. Change is messy, as are people. We’re unpredictable and bring unending divergent experiences and motivations.

Today, corporates are balancing volumes of technical change with volumes of adaptive change.  Employees are caught in the middle. The effort expended to execute this is enormous – yet most companies aren't set up to successfully navigate this level of complexity.

Ultimately, for people, teams and managers to thrive in an adaptive state, we need to retrain our collective muscle and mindset around a perpetual evolution of topics, practises and environments.

If leaders and boardrooms don’t recognise this, the already myriad risks to the success of any transformation project will only be compounded. Especially if businesses continue to treat the behavioural, adaptive challenges facing their people with a purely technical approach.


Need practical solutions for adaptive problems? We’d love to help… Get in touch.
Recommended reading:

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

C. Otto Scharmer, Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges


Ready to dive deeper?

Ready to dive deeper?

Ready to dive deeper?

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