Adaptive teams

In their book The Adaptation Advantage: Let Go, Learn Fast, and Thrive in the Future of Work, Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley argue that adaptability is one of the most critical skills to have in the future. While adaptability is often associated with individuals, it is also essential for teams. To build adaptive teams, the authors contend, we need to break down the rigid job descriptions and organizational structures.

Adaptability starts with the hiring manager before an employee joins the organization. Instead of focusing exclusively on prior experience, credentials, and past skills, the hiring process should assess the candidate’s value alignment with the organization’s purpose and culture. Culture fit does not mean hiring people who are the same in every way as the existing employees. Adaptive teams need divergent thinkers and diverse skillsets, life experiences, and world views. Hiring people who are too alike to the existing team often leads to groupthink.

McGowan and Shipley postulate that evaluating candidates based on the resume is a mistake. Resumes are a backward-facing document that only tells the reader what the candidate has done in the past. Resumes are static. They do not give any indication of what a person can do in the present or the future. “Instead of asking what a candidate has previously done or even what they can do, we have to talk about how potential employees think, how they see themselves, the vagaries of the job, and how they might see themselves in our organization.”

Once on a job, companies can no longer enforce strict roles and rigid corporate structure. Limiting job responsibilities trap employees and discourage them from learning, adapting, and seeking opportunities that fall outside their job description. When someone says, “It’s not my job,” that is an indication that the organization is poorly positioned for the fast-moving future of work, and its employees might have outdated knowledge and skills.

Similarly, leadership is one of the key differentiators. Managers direct a process and tell workers what to do and how to do it. Companies with adaptive teams have started to eliminate the management layers to accelerate adaptability to change. Unlike managers, leaders inspire people, provide resources and direction, and coach employees to deliver results. Great leaders are catalysts for good work.

The traditional top-down organizational structures only work in slow-moving markets. In the rapidly moving environment, a better way to organize teams is by creating “purpose-built” groups that are assembled temporarily to address a specific challenge. These groups might stay together for a few months or a few years until the objective has been met. Once the project is complete, groups are disassembled, and team members get recruited to a new workgroup or spend time upskilling and preparing for the next opportunity.

McGowan and Shipley find that the biggest challenge people face when discussing the future of work is helping their team members imagine what the future might look like. “We need to build teams with clear eyes focused on an unclear horizon, resisting the urge to stare into the rearview mirror and assume that what worked yesterday will be adequate for tomorrow.” Even on a personal level, we can see how easy it is to remember what we were like ten years ago, but it is hard to imagine what we might be like ten years from today.

We are now part of the creative economy, which requires a different kind of education. It involves exploring the unknown, learning, and adapting to create value in new ways. Embracing our uniquely human skills and letting go of restrictive professional identities will help us thrive in the future of work.

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