Adaptive Culture: How to Respond to Organizational Change

Dec 15, 2022

The accelerated change we’re experiencing today requires improvisation rather than rigid adherence to traditional ways of doing things. As a result, having an adaptive culture is becoming increasingly critical.

Creating an adaptive organizational culture allows a company to bend and pivot rather than breaking when confronting change on any scale. Adopting an adaptive culture framework will drive organizational growth in the face of sweeping changes. Read on to learn how that framework will benefit your organization, and how to create it. 

Defining Adaptive Culture

Traditional organizational culture involves top-down (and often complex) decision-making. Change typically happens slowly through cumbersome processes. In contrast, in an adaptive corporate culture, employees are empowered to drive change. They can respond in the moment to emerging issues their organization is confronting.

For example, Delta, General Motors, and Unilever all adapted early on in the pandemic by using agile management principles, notes HBR. This often meant unleashing new products in weeks rather than months. Within a month, GM had designed factory lines capable of making ventilators. These organizations solved problems so quickly during a turbulent time because they let teams swiftly try out new ideas that they came up with themselves.

Benefits of an Adaptive Culture

Adopting an adaptive culture brings significant benefits:

  • Tapping into the full intelligence and creative thinking of your team, rather than just a select few.
  • Letting teams quickly test ideas, bringing cutting-edge concepts forward in a timely manner. Implementing ideas rapidly can become a major competitive advantage. 
  • Preventing turnover during challenging times. An adaptive culture can heighten job satisfaction, helping each employee take more pride in their work.

Now, let’s examine key aspects of an adaptive culture.

Key Elements of an Adaptive Culture

What elements do adaptive cultures have in common?

  • Teams can try out ideas quickly without a lengthy wait for approval. 
  • Employees can form teams on an ad hoc basis around a specific need. They can self-organize these teams by selecting the right people and resources to involve in a specific effort. 
  • Teams can try new approaches and methods. Tightly controlling how they work will limit creativity; giving them flexibility will ignite innovation.

Next, we’ll look at how to actually begin implementing an adaptive culture.

Adopting an Adaptive Culture Framework

Here are nine design principles to follow in creating an adaptive culture. 

  1. Build in flexibility

Have flexible teams that can reform across functions as needed. State a clear protocol for organizing around a specific project. Encourage flexibility on an individual level, too, promoting job shadowing and cross-training.

  1. Connect teams with resources

Give teams access to the right resources—and make sure they know where to find them.

  1. Clarify mission, goals, and emerging problems

Setting strategic priorities will fuel an adaptive culture. Make overarching missions and goals crystal-clear. Similarly, ask managers to discuss a core problem at hand with their employees and then encourage the team to figure out the best approach. 

  1. Establish trust

Show your confidence in your teams, and make sure your managers are transparent and supportive.

  1. Specify where employees have autonomy

There are actually three types of autonomy, says the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM):

  • Full autonomy in setting goals
  • Autonomy in interactions
  • Autonomy in our approach to work

Employees don’t necessarily want full autonomy, and that may not be feasible for organizations anyway. But they can have a high level of autonomy in how they plan and carry out their projects.

  1. Promote networking

Create opportunities for employees to network, which can foster new ideas. These interactions can happen in both formal and informal settings (like meetings and casual chats over coffee). 

  1. Recognize great ideas

Even if you don’t ultimately implement them, taking note of great ideas will build employees’ confidence. At the same time, don’t inadvertently penalize failed attempts—instead, show appreciation for the effort made.

  1. Prompt reflection

Ask employees to share insights about what went well, or what didn’t. This will deepen their critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.

  1. Give feedback instead of instruction

Rather than just giving directions, managers should share feedback on employees’ ideas. Employees can build and grow from that feedback.

When you’ve established the right framework, change will fuel your growth rather than holding you back. Your adaptive organizational culture will allow your company to thrive in the face of big and small changes, transforming in positive ways.

  1. About the Author:

  2. About the Author:

    Bud Moore is a founding partner of Valesco Industries. He is responsible for managing the firm, strategy development, portfolio management, new investment origination, and team development.

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