Knoll: COVID makes case for adaptive organizations

vulnerability that’s been revealed from the global pandemic is the fragility of our organizations.  Examples have been presented from a wide range of industries, businesses and individual citizens including health care and hospitals; restaurants; travel and tourism; government at all levels; families and communities.  The skills, ability and resources necessary to withstand changes, whether abrupt or gradual, are fundamental to adapting and adopting to rapidly changing circumstances.  The knowledge required for organizations to become more resilient is widely available so why don’t leaders invest more to develop these skills?

Adaptive organizations begin with leadership.  This typically comes from the CEO’s office or upper management as they set the tone and define the spaces of possibilities.  The tools and knowledge are readily available, and any human resources leader worth his or her salt has access to them.  What’s less abundant is the will to develop an ongoing posture of adaptability.

With the marketplace now fully globalized and driven by instantaneous communication, risk can quickly emerge leading to new threats.  Take the pandemic as a case study.  In fewer than three months, the consequences from a nasty virus made their way around the world resulting in decisive action taken by governments, businesses, organizations and citizens.  This is a rational response to a deadly bug.  What comes after the response is hugely consequential to almost every person on our planet.  We’ve witnessed lockdowns, stay-at-home orders and in some cases more dramatic action including the mandatory shutdown of some businesses. 

In the future we’ll experience situations that have varying degrees of threats, but the lesson is in the preparation and response.  Will governments, businesses and citizens exercise a different commitment to preparing for future threats or will it be business as usual?  Only time will tell.  What we’ll know soon enough is the degree to which preparations were made for the current pandemic threat and who was or wasn’t ready. 

Adaptive organizations employ a wide range of tools, training and techniques to prepare for future situations.  Scenario planning, material stockpiling, financial reserves, contingency plans, redundancies are a few practices used to prepare for possible threats. 

We’ll explore scenario planning as an illustration of increasing adaptability to future possibilities.  The gold-standard of scenario planning, arguably, is the U.S. military.  The various branches of the military are constantly and relentlessly planning.  They train new members through structured programs that increase the number of participants in their ranks.  They employ a combination of classroom style and field operations to educate.  The use of exercises combines classroom and field ops to simulate live and realistic situations the forces could encounter.

Organizations have access to these same fundamental training techniques and the best of the best use them to become more resilient.  The author Nassim Nicholas Talib defines this posture as “antifragility,” or the opposite of fragile.  Antifragile means preparing for as many scenarios as possible and maintaining a posture of readiness should a threatening situation present itself.  It’s important that we learn from the pandemic and that it’s worthwhile to prepare for a wide range of future possibilities if we want our organizations to survive future pandemic-like threats.

Thomas Knoll is the founder and CEO of Innovators CoLab (www.innovatorsco.com). He can be reached at thomas@innovatorsco.com