Ronald Steed

Five Characteristics of Adaptable Organizations...

I had the pleasure today of hearing Rear Admiral Gardner Howe, the President of the Naval War College, talk about the characteristics of organizations that put a high premium on “adaptability".1

Although the Admiral’s thoughts about adaptability were shaped by his military experience, I was struck by how much they might also apply to any team, particularly those who operate in very complex environments such as High Reliability Organizations. Here are his five:
  1. Members have a shared sense of purpose.
  2. Members are co-located.
  3. The organization puts a much higher premium on effectiveness rather than efficiency.
  4. The organization has a willingness to accept failure.
  5. Members have a sense of urgency.
All of these are interesting, but I want to focus on #2, #3, and #4.

The idea that adaptability is enhanced when members are co-located certainly seems contrary to the trend in many businesses today whose members can be all over the world and working in remote locations. One of the things the Admiral mentioned was that, in complex environments, the outcome of operational efforts is influenced to a large degree by the “serendipitous" nature of things. It is the fact of serendipity that makes adaptability so important to the organization as a value. He conveyed the idea that co-location helped the team leverage serendipity to its advantage. My sense is that there is nothing quite like face-to-face communication between team members. While good teamwork CAN be achieved by remote members, the non-verbal cues and communications between members in proximity to one another is a strong factor in their adaptation to conditions. There are many compelling reasons for people to work remotely (including the need to be face-to-face with the customer), but perhaps the lesson here is that if adaptability is a key value… maybe a survival value… co-location needs to be a strong consideration.

Effectiveness is usually held in tension with efficiency, and the way in which organizations strike a balance between these two depends a lot on their aims. Where cost is a major driver, efficiency might have a higher claim. But where VALUE or adaptability is more important, effectiveness should dominate. Often, the lowest cost is not the greatest value. My colleague Cynthia Lamb (Linkedin: http://goo.gl/h8Uln0) does a lot of work on Value Engineering, and I think she would agree with this. And if the team needs to adapt to serendipity, the focus in effectiveness rather than efficiency will put the team in a responsive mindset for changing conditions.

Finally, the willingness of an organization to accept failure was really a striking feature of the list. In the case of research, high failure rates are a given. But in operational contexts, failure rarely seems to make the cut for obvious reasons. I can see a lot of wisdom in failure-as-a-good-thing, particularly if the organization is ALSO a learning one that sees failure as an opportunity. A submarine Commanding Officer of a really hot-running crew was telling me about a very public failure they had at sea once (no one hurt, nothing broken, but still very embarrassing). He said “it was the best thing that could possibly have happened to us. We had gotten to the point that we believed we were invincible, and this failure put some much needed humility back into our perspective." One of the key tenets of good training is that the team needs to experience failure as well as success. And if a failure during training can be followed by a quick lesson in what when wrong and then by a do-over with a successful outcome, you can’t ask for anything more effective (even if it is not efficient!).

What are your thoughts on this list?

1. RADM Howe was participating in a panel discussion on “Innovation from the Warfighter’s Perspective" at that the Defense Innovation Days Conference sponsored by the Southeast New England Defense Industry Alliance in Newport, RI.
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