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Why founders need To adopt “radical adaptability”

In the first quarter of 2020, the world of work underwent its biggest transformation since the arrival of the internet. The scale of change that took the internet a decade to achieve, was achieved by the pandemic in weeks. It was testimony to the adaptability of so many businesses that there was more resilience in the system than anyone had predicted or expected.

As a new book on resilience and adaptability highlights, businesses ranging from Michelin-star restaurants (many of which quickly got into home deliveries and cook-it-yourself kits) to an Australian theatre set-building company (pivoting to make home-office desks) to Taiwanese airlines (which, devoid of passengers, switched to shipping packages) had to learn to work differently. As the authors put it, “Even in a radically disrupted business environment, companies learned they could thrive if they could crack the code of radical adaptability and master its lessons.”

The book is by a team of transformation consultants that had spent the best part of the decade before 2020 telling everyone that everything had changed and that they needed to adapt. They must have been tempted to call it “We told you so”, but instead Keith Ferrazzi, Kian Gohar and Noel Weyricha’s forthcoming book is called Competing in the New World of Work and, rather than merely rehashing old arguments, it offers an evidence-based framework for how to “go forward” into this new reality instead of merely going “back to work”.

Yes, the book is transformation consultants preaching the benefits of transformation. But they do so on the back of a major research project, launched to assess what organisations and leaders who were successfully able to adapt to the new conditions had done right. Under the aegis of the Go Forward To Work project, they have interviewed more than 2,000 leaders and pulled together a two-part framework for what they call “radical adaptability”.

This is the essence of what’s required to thrive in an unpredictable environment, where uncertainty is more of a distinguishing feature than established rules or norms. Such radical adaptability requires new behaviours from teams and organisations. And the time to adapt and adopt this thinking is not tomorrow. As they write, “What had been seen as the future of work suddenly became recognised for what it was, namely the present of work.”

It starts at a team level, where this new way of working requires:

1. Collaboration through inclusion. Teams will have to embrace the possibility of a richer diversity of virtual, remote, and hybrid teamwork to drive innovation forward.

2. A pivot to enterprise agility. You need to extend and expand the ethos of short-term sprints that kept everyone on our trajectory during the crisis, and find an operating system that allows you to thrive sustainably, amid continued volatility.

3. Stronger team resilience. This means being able to bounce forward in the face of setbacks and recognize that good leaders strive to maintain the emotional and physical energies of the whole team.

4. Developing active foresight. You need teams to learn to see around corners, to avoid unsuspected risk and to systematically explore new possibilities.

The authors then present an operating model for how such teams can build a radically adaptable organization, by deploying these team skills to three enterprise-wide applications:

1. Future-proof your business model. Develop an ongoing process of experimentation to create and realize your company’s future vision of itself.

2. Build a Lego block workforce. Redesign your workforce to support a flexible, nimble, cost-effective, and creative future.

3. Supercharge your purpose. Build a movement for radical adaptability by discovering and communicating your organization’s long-term purpose.

Competing in the New World of Work is published by Harvard Business Review Press on 15 February 2022