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Future proof: Solving the ‘adaptability paradox’ for the long term

Just when leaders need fresh thinking and decisiveness, they tend to fall back on tried-and-true ways. Five actions can transform your relationship with uncertainty and help you thrive

Source | | McKinsey & Company

Shutdowns and supply-chain hacks. Hybrid work, remote shopping, settling up via blockchain. The past year has made it abundantly clear, if it wasn’t already, that a volatile and complex world is serving up change at an accelerating pace.

Individuals and organizations need to be ready. That doesn’t mean reacting to the next challenge that comes our way but rather being prepared to meet it when it arrives. There’s one tool above all others that can help leaders do that: adaptability.

Adaptability is the ability to learn flexibly and efficiently and to apply that knowledge across situations. It’s not so much a skill as a meta-skill—learning how to learn and being conscious of when to put that learner’s mind into action. By becoming aware of and open to change now, we can maintain control over uncertainty before pressures build to the point where altering course is much more difficult, or even futile.

Our research shows that adaptability is the critical success factor during periods of transformation and systemic change. It allows us to be faster and better at learning, and it orients us toward the opportunities ahead, not just the challenges.

Yet the same conditions that make adapting so important can also trigger fear, making us default to familiar patterns or whatever solutions worked the last time. We call this the “adaptability paradox”: when we most need to learn and change, we stick with what we know, often in a way that stifles learning and innovation. Even positive events, such as receiving a promotion or beginning a new workstream, can turn negative unless we can maintain a learning mindset while under pressure.

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