Founding and leading a business or organization comes with many unknowns, but one thing seems certain: At some point, leadership will have to guide the team through a crisis. While every crisis won’t have the global reach and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, every crisis can cause disruption, lost momentum, and even failure—if leaders haven’t created a culture of adaptability.
With the right guidance and preparation, businesses and their team members can quickly make important decisions and pivot when and as needed—even in the face of a crisis. However, adaptability doesn’t happen accidentally; it’s a skill and a mindset that must be intentionally developed and cultivated every day within an organization. Below, the members of Fast Company Executive Board share 15 practical ways leaders of any business or organization can build a culture of adaptability.
1. FOSTER AN ENTREPRENEURIAL SPIRIT.
The best foundation to build an agile business on is its most important asset: its people. Foster the entrepreneurial spirit—unleash the potential of your people and then harness it. That is how we sustain an on-demand, faster, better business model and create a happy, healthy workforce and business equipped to face the challenges of the future. – Eric Schurke, Moneypenny
2. ENCOURAGE CURIOSITY AND FEARLESSNESS.
Adaptability requires curiosity and fearlessness. Why? Since our brains prefer familiarity and resist change, by embracing curiosity we can open the door to exploring new possibilities and realize that by adapting to new situations, we have more to gain than to lose. In doing this, we can foster a culture of fearlessness filled with creativity, innovation, and continuous improvement. – Andreea Vanacker, SPARKX5
3. ALIGN ALL TEAM MEMBERS ON SHARED GOALS AND VALUES.
Like innovation, the most successful ideas for change come not from the C-suite but from front-line team members. They are at the heart of our organizations, deeply connected to our customers, and seeing changes and shifts faster. Successful teams take the time to align all players on shared goals and values and give everyone a safe and open path to share ideas, questions, and changes. – Chris Denny, The Engine is Red
4. PROVIDE THE PROPER CONTEXT AROUND BIG DECISIONS.
Always communicate the context. Whether it’s a positive development or a major concern, organizations that consistently communicate the context—including the rationale around decisions impacting the collective—always find it easier to bring their people along for the ride. – Nizzi Karai Renaud, Zazzle
5. EXPLAIN THE “WHY” BEHIND CHANGES.
Building a culture of adaptability within your organization is important, and it starts with giving your employees a compelling “why.” When you implement changes, it can be hard for employees to be adaptable if they don’t know the why. However, that can instantly change if you simply tell them the reason for the change. Even if your employees aren’t thrilled, at least they know the point behind it. – John Hall, Calendar
6. OPENLY ACCEPT TRYING NEW IDEAS—EVEN IF THEY FAIL.
We use artificial intelligence to constantly test factors relevant to our goals and adapt. But the human language of adaptability can also have a huge impact—”Let’s try that”; “That could work”; “I don’t know, but let’s go for it.” These phrases signal that company culture accepts failure and you don’t have to know the perfect answer to try a new idea. After all, new ideas are the best armor against turbulent times. – Monica Landers, StoryFit
7. GIVE YOURSELF ROOM TO ADAPT AND EVOLVE.
Broaden your brand and scope, and make it central to your industry. For example, Smith Corona “made typewriters.” So did IBM, but IBM was “International Business Machines”—a broad scope central to the industry. It’s IBM that’s still a household name. As a current-day example, an e-commerce fulfillment company can be known for “logistics” or it can be known as the “hub of e-commerce enablement.” The latter will make adapting much easier. – Esther Kestenbaum Prozan, Ruby Has Fulfillment
8. TREAT TRYING SOMETHING NEW AS NO BIG DEAL.
I’m a strong believer that both in business and life, we are either growing or dying. Plus, in the digital marketing industry, the only constant is change. In our organization, we are open to development and growth, so any changes are absolutely normal and even expected. I’d suggest businesses constantly try something new and not make a big deal about it. The team will adapt and follow along. – Solomon Thimothy, OneIMS
9. CREATE SPACE FOR WORKLOAD ADDITIONS.
To create a culture of adaptability, it’s critical to take away when you add. Too often, when a new challenge or opportunity comes up, a new workstream is added to a person or team’s workload without taking anything away. It’s essential to look for what is no longer important or needed to create space for new things, as well as to adapt expectations and success criteria to match. – Alexandra Cavoulacos, The Muse
10. INCREASE THE DIVERSITY OF THE TEAM.
More diverse perspectives in the room will create fodder for adaptability. Build and strengthen an environment of psychological safety so people are valued for posing alternative solutions. Put mechanisms in place for experimentation so new approaches can be tested out with reduced risk and validated on the way to being implemented. – Amy Radin, Pragmatic Innovation Partners LLC
11. NORMALIZE CONSTRUCTIVE RISK-TAKING.
Many organizations give lip service to creativity and innovation but then reject ideas that are not proven or punish failure. You cannot build agility or expect adaptability without also destigmatizing failure, setting an expectation of experimentation, and training people to thrive in the face of uncertainty. – Jonathan Fields, Spark Endeavors | Good Life Project®
12. ACCEPT THAT MISTAKES ARE AN INEVITABLE PART OF GROWTH.
Celebrate mistakes! Maybe not all of them, but certainly the smart ones that show elasticity of thought and willingness to push beyond the norm. Given the level of pandemic-driven acceleration throughout our economy, mistakes are inevitable, and those who are thinking differently and trying new paths should continue to be encouraged. Adaptability is a master key to thriving in our persistent uncertainty. – Joe Watson
13. CREATE CROSS-FUNCTIONAL TEAMS.
Companies can foster a culture of adaptability by creating cross-functional teams so that employees can work together on projects, such as a new product launch. The diversity of perspectives will benefit the project, and the structure forces staff to adapt to the working and communication styles of others. Over time, people get more flexible and open to change. – Ximena Hartsock, Phone2Action
14. DEVELOP AN INCLUSIVE FEEDBACK LOOP.
It’s important to develop a practice of challenging the status quo and listening to ideas from employees and the communities your organization serves. As a leader, you should have an inclusive feedback loop in place through which employees feel empowered to share their thoughts, experiences, and challenges. Investing in research and data can help you understand the needs of the communities you serve. – Amit Paley, The Trevor Project
15. EMBRACE DISCOMFORT.
Adopt a growth mindset. Encourage innovation and change throughout your organization. Get your team comfortable with change. All growth, learning, and change begins with struggle. Help your team embrace discomfort as a necessity to progress; in turn, they will respond and adapt with confidence. This can be done through team training, one-to-one coaching, and recognition of the growth in new areas. – Liza Streiff, Knopman Marks Financial Training