Why Adapting Is So Hard

Why Adapting Is So Hard by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by Joe Dsilva. Available at Flickr.com.

Adaptability is a critical component to any leader’s effectiveness. The status quo is often the leader’s enemy and being able to adjust and adapt is actually the leader’s home turf. So, recognizing the need to adapt is rarely the leader’s challenge, nor is the desire to effect change. The real challenge leaders deal with is understanding what adaptations are necessary. Mac McKeown’s recent book, “Adaptability,” addresses all of these issues.

In “Adaptability: The Art of Winning In An Age of Uncertainty,” McKeown outlines three steps necessary for adaptability:

  1. Recognizing the need for adaptation,
  2. Understand what adaptation is necessary, and
  3. Taking action to adapt.

Of those three steps, the 2nd is the real problem for most leaders. Effective leaders are insightful people and they almost always recognize problems and the need to adapt (step 1). The real difficulty is in understanding what changes must be made, that is, which adaptations are necessary to deal with the challenge at hand (step 2). Once the necessary adaptation is determined with a high degree of confidence, action naturally follows (step 3). However, inaction almost always occurs because the leader does not really understand what needs to be done—step 2.

McKeown adds that moving from step 1, recognizing the need for adaptation, to step 3, action to adapt, is a common mistake. Organizational cultures, Wall Street pressures, customer demands, and market competition are all tremendous pressures that demand quick solutions to very complex problems. These and other factors often cause leaders to skip step 2. Skipping step 2, though, can be disastrous. So I am going to focus my attention in this article on what McKeown says about understanding what needs to adapt. McKeown presents five “rules” for understanding adaptation.

Learning Fast Better Than Failing Fast
We’ve all heard about “failing your way to success” and that leaders should not fear failure. True enough. I have no argument with any of that, but McKeown points out that what’s really important in failure is learning from it and not making the same mistakes, the same failures, twice. He also says that new mistakes based on the same reasons is also failing to learn.

Plan B Matters Most
Every leader knows how seldom plan A truly works. In fact, unless plan A is actually a previously tried and proven solution, I can’t think of a single time that plan A has worked. Can you? I didn’t think so. So, it’s really plan B that matters most. Plan B is usually a modification of plan A, sometimes quite similar and other times quite different. The point, though, is that leaders need to recognize that adaptation is a process based on repeated attempts and refinements. (See “Learning Fast Better Than Failing Fast” above.)

Free Radicals
Solutions that work consistently require a stable environment for them to work again and again. However, we all know that stable environments are short-lived. McKeown says that “free radicals,” people who are able to combine conventional and unconventional approaches to problem solving, are often able to take advantage of newly destabilized environments to create new solutions. Free radicals can be tremendously helpful in seeing and understanding necessary adaptation.

Think Better Together
Adaptation at the cultural level (vs. individual) requires the support of multiple people. That’s a fairly obvious statement, but too often leaders attempt to implement change without that support. McKeown points out that this support does not need to be a majority in the organization, just a majority at the highest levels of the organization. Those of you familiar with John Kotter’s model for change recognize the similarity to his “guiding coalition” concept. The best change ideas often come from the middle of the organization, but support at the highest levels is always needed.

Get an “A-Player” Partner
It always helps to have an A-player partner with you when it comes time to put your adaptation to work. Sometimes the A-player brings credibility to the effort. Sometimes that A-player is able to get actual work done faster and better than anyone else. Sometimes the A-player brings a coalition of political support without which your adaptation will die. Whatever the case, keep your eyes open for A-players that can be valuable allies.


Adaptability is a requirement for effective leaders. Recognizing the need to adapt is rarely an issue. The desire to act is also rarely a problem. Understanding how to act and what adaptations are necessary is the central issue for most leaders. McKeown presents five solid ideas to help, but I am sure you have your own tips for understanding adaptation. For example, to McKeown’s list I would add “Understand the Opposition Intimately.”

Understand the Opposition Intimately
By opposition, I do not mean enemies, but rather those who would oppose your adaptation either actively or passively. You must understand why others oppose your adaptation before you can successfully implement it. There are several things you need to know. What do they value? What solutions would they propose and why? How will they argue against your adaptation? How will they react when your adaptation is enacted? This knowledge is critical, not just for strategic purposes, though. If you, as an authentic leader, take time to understand their position as if it were your own you will probably develop a better approach faster (perhaps skip plan A and go right to plan B) and even gain allies in the process.

What about you? What do you do to understand the necessary adaptation?

The Soundview Executive Book Summary for this book was instrumental in developing this article.

2 thoughts on “Why Adapting Is So Hard

  1. Yes and Amen!! =) Most often, Plan B has been afforded the luxury of TIME in the process of refinement. Many leaders see TIME as such … a luxury that is not afforded them. In the end, both money and time are wasted as a result pursuing Plan A. The oft-used adage “Any port in a storm” is really not a motto to live or lead by!

    • Yes, there are many urgencies facing leaders. They are real and strong. The difficult part is figuring out which to respond to and which to ignore. I’ll have to think about that … it’s a potential article.

      Does anyone have guidance on that?

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