Trend Watch: “Adaptive Management” and building agility into your organization

You hear it everywhere – our world is accelerating. It affects the pace of our day-to-day lives, the technologies we develop and use, and it certainly affects how we operate in our organizations.

At Intersol we live and breathe organizations, and so we are always on the look out for how management thinking and culture are changing. It affects our work, but most importantly, it affects our clients. And we’re seeing some very interesting shifts happening.

We’ve noticed, as I’m sure you have, that whether you work in a public organization, a not-for-profit, a big company or an association, you are likely feeling the pressure to do more things, faster.

So today, we’re asking the question: how do we need to behave differently to keep up?

Can we simply do what we have always done, but faster?  Maybe not.

It seems that our new organizational reality demands radically different ways of working. It requires a shift from the traditional plan and execute, command and control type of management thinking, to what we’ll call “Adaptive Management” strategies.

What does “Adaptive Management” really look like?

Well, it seems to be represented differently in different organizations, but it is based on a common set of principles. Organizations that are taking the lead in Adaptive Management seem to get these things right:

  1. Information Flow. Organizations are finding new ways to bring information into their workflow. They are investing in research, and engaging in debates on social media to ensure new insights and information about the environment, clients, competitors, members, services, customers, etc. are collected. Then, they are ensuring the information is shared and acted upon across the organization.
  2. A Culture of Questioning. Adaptive organizations don’t seem to accept the status quo. They question what is changing, and look to continually learn from what has and hasn’t worked in the past. They also understand that what worked yesterday might not work today. Employees aren’t afraid to make mistakes. They are encouraged to ask “why?” to challenge each other professionally, and to bring forward new ideas.
  3. Inclusive Decision-Making. The world is moving too quickly for one or two people to direct an organization; large or small. To be adaptive, organizations seem to excel by distributing decision-making responsibilities, and trusting in people – not processes – to make good decisions. High levels of trust may need to be paired with, and precipitated by, strong coordination and communication mechanisms, but the days of waiting for six levels of approval seem to be on their way out.
  4. Diverse Strategies. Simply put: adaptive management means not putting all your eggs in one basket. In a world that shifts and changes quickly, focusing all of your organizational resources on one, perfectly thought-out, five-year plan no longer makes sense. To be able to stay agile, organizations seem to need to have more than one road to success, and be able to evolve plans and strategies easily as new information becomes available.
  5. Feedback Loops. Finally, this type of adaptive behaviour seems to require tight feedback loops – good information about what’s working and what’s not. Soliciting and documenting feedback, measuring and tracking outcomes, and even the dreaded e-word (…evaluation), seem to be critical for organizations to test new ideas, make tweaks to strategies and programs, and ultimately scrap what isn’t working. Organizations that learn to do this regularly and efficiently try more new things, waste fewer resources, and are ultimately able to be more adaptive.

Easy! Right?

Okay maybe not. In fact, it may even sound to you like this way of working would only be possible in a small technology start-up. And, admittedly, much of this thinking is being pioneered in Silicon Valley.

However! These principles can be applied in organizations large and small. In fact, real world examples of these principles are popping up in lots of places. Netflix, for example has become well known for its management philosophy which encompasses many of the principles listed above. Admittedly, it’s a technology company, but they’ve grown from small to over 2,000 employees.

Another example is Jurgen Appelo’s book “Management 3.0,” which takes the concepts from Agile software development and expands it into how to manage teams and organizations within an Agile framework.  It too is rooted in the same type of thinking as the Adaptive Management principles outlined above.

Even some larger, traditionally slower operating organizations are experimenting with adaptive management thinking and practices. The UK government is experimenting with something called a social impact bond. It’s a way of ensuring strong feedback loops and the ability to continually adapt programming based on lessons learned. In my opinion, this is a perfect “out of the box” example of how organizations can integrate adaptive management into their operations.

The good news is that you don’t need to start your own software company or wait until the next re-org to experiment with adaptive management principles in your work.

Do you run projects? There are adaptive ways you can do that – check out Agile Project Management or Prince 2.

Do you need to monitor or evaluate a program? Check out outcome mapping as another example of adaptive management thinking.

Do you manage a team?  Try applying these principles at a smaller scale with your colleagues.

Are you in charge of making changes to structures, processes, policies, or culture within your organization?  Chances are you’re looking to find ways to enable your organization to get more done, faster. Because, who isn’t!? Adaptive management thinking might provide some insights to help. Check out this blog post over at the Management Innovation Exchange on Design Principles of Adaptive Organizations for more thoughts, and inspiration for how these principles could be applied in your organization.

Kirsten Brouse is an Intersol Consultant and is currently completing her masters thesis on how organizations learn and adapt in fragile states.

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