The Adaptation Advantage: Answers for the Here & Now

‘Rapid unlearning and adaptation are both about how we embrace and absorb new skills and how we let go of old ones. To be able to do both effectively and constantly, they argue, requires a mind shift and an identity shift—a letting go of “who we think we are” and a regular reinventing of yourself. I find this the most original aspect of their book—the important role that identity plays in how and how much we can learn and adapt at the steady pace demanded by this age of acceleration.’

This extract from the Forward by the New York Time’s Thomas L. Friedman of Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley’s The Adaptation Advantage perfectly frames the value of this book for the here and now. For a world turned upside down where millions of workers have been displaced from their jobs and millions more are required to reimagine how they work outside the constructs of a physical workplace and the identity forged within it.

The future portended in this book was crafted by technological disruption and hyperconnected globalization yet the messages within for all of us remain the same; adaptation is something we all must embrace to move through what is going to be some challenging months and potentially years.

 The Adaptation Advantage is a significant piece of work. The product of wide ranging research and reflection by two leaders in the Future of Work it was written in a time pre-pandemic. And now all the effort that went into painting a picture for us as to how our past world connects to a future reality and how we can take control of readying ourselves for that reality (and in fact reshape it) reads like a Survival Guide for working in a COVID-19 world.

The book is divided into three sections: a privy on accelerated change and our adaptation to date, one for individuals, which is where we must all begin as we are individuals first, and another for those leading and managing teams. I had the opportunity to ask one of the authors, Heather McGowan, a few questions about how the current pandemic relates to the book.

The author and Donna Eiby, Academic & Creative Director of the Academy, take in a sunrise in Southport, Australia.

FWSA: First, How Are You?

HM: I am fine thanks. While we say “we are all in this together” and that is true from the standpoint that the virus does not discriminate based upon age, race, religion, country of origin, or income, some folks have much more exposure and vulnerability than others. I am safely quarantined in a home working on writing and content for talks, while so many are on the front lines exposed to the virus, many without economic or health protections. My hope is that the only thing growing faster than the virus is our sense of empathy and our true interdependencies and from this a social safety net with fewer holes will emerge so that we maximize more of our collective human potential.

 FWSA: So true, How Do You See the Pandemic Impacting Your Vision of The Future of Work?

HM: I think it is really interesting, as I believe all the things that Chris and I wrote about remain true and the coronavirus has become a massive accelerant. In education, in a matter of days to a week, we have seen entire education systems become fully operational online. Faculty members who said that they would never teach online, well, teaching online and succeeding at it. Leaders who would previously turn down talent unwilling to move to their geographic region, suddenly embracing their teams working from home. As Dov Seidman says, “trust is the only legally performance enhancing drug” and we are seeing massive growth in trust. While we are all adapting to working remotely, living together in self-quarantine, where parents juggle work deadlines with increasing pressure from smaller teams due to furloughs and layoffs, and, in the case of parents, becoming part time teachers, we are all learning very quickly how adaptable we are and how much we are capable of doing. As horrible as this virus is, and it is horrible, I see humans coming together, adapting and collaborating, leaving me believing the virus is no match for us.

FWSA: How Is This Changing Leadership?

HM: As Chris and I write in the book, changes brought on by a combination of accelerated change from exponential growth in technology meeting a hyper connected global economy and workforce, have reshaped the leadership profile. In the first three industrial revolutions (steam, electricity/manufacturing, computerization) a leader focused on efficiency and driving productivity. In those contexts, the human was a depersonalized unit of productivity. In the fourth industrial revolution with the merging of biological, cyber, and physical systems, the human augments and compliments technological capabilities. In this reality we benefit much more by figuring out what each and every human is capable of doing, being, and dreaming. Technology answers questions, humans ask them. Technology cannot dream. As you have focused your work on cultivating those uniquely human skills and empowering talent, so too must leadership figure out how to inspire human potential rather than just drive productivity and chase efficiency. Leaders who will be successful both during this virus and in the future that we see will be able to establish psychological safety, engender trust, engage humans based upon shared purpose and mission, and lead teams on learning tours to find new sources of value creation. Dr. David Eagleman says our cognition works in two modes: exploration and exploitation. Animals in the wild explore to find new sources of food and then exploit those food sources until they deplete them. So to do businesses, exploration is used to find a new product, service, business model, or market and the exploitation comes in to make the unit of value delivered better, cheaper, faster or for a larger market (or all of the above). As accelerated change shortens the lifespan of products, services, business models, entire companies and even fragments new markets, we need more folks to work in exploration. Technology also consumes many of the knowledge-based tasks found in exploitation. Leading teams in exploring to find new value does not work through driving productivity, we need leaders who can inspire human potential. Since the virus broken, my friend Donna is CEO and owner of a trade show company that does very large-scale trade show booths and temporary structures for retail environments. When the virus hit, she could have furloughed her staff, closed up shop, collected whatever government stimulus is available and wait for the virus to pass. Instead, she said to her teams “What are we good at and where are the needs right now?” Her teams are now producing testing booths for virus tests in rapidly deployed new coronavirus examination centers and producing face shields for healthcare workers. There have been so many examples like this from cosmetic and liquor companies pivoting their production lines to make hand sanitizer to fashion companies making PPE to technology manufacturing groups making ventilators. More of us need to think like Donna and lead with inspiring our teams to find their adaptability and their potential.

FWSA: What About Individual Identity And How Is That Shifting I Know That Is A Big Theme In The Book?

HM: The point key point we make in the book and I make in all of my talks is that over the past couple of generations we have become fixated on our occupational identity. We ask young kids what they want to be when they grow up, we ask university students their major and in the US we often make them declare that major while still in high school and we ask each other about our occupation immediately upon meeting. What do you do? Is the preferred cocktail or dinner party opener. This incredible dangerous in a world moving as quickly as ours. We are asking young children to imagine and then zero in on a future self when much of what they imagine will either not exist or change so much it may be unrecognizable. University students pick majors based upon what they are told they are good at which is a pretty thin slice of life. Studies have found the loss of a job can take longer and be more difficult psychologically than the loss of a primary relationship. So we have become sick in our obsession with occupational identity to our detriment as the rigidity prohibits our ability to adapt. Further, much of the developed world is going through massive societal and cultural changes from our family units (more single parents, more same sex parents, fewer children) to changing religious affiliations beyond Christianity to more diverse leadership profiles beyond only white men to shifting from fixed and binary gender identity. These changes are not political, but they have been politicized and they make some folks very uncomfortable while making some other folks finally feel included. These changes are shifting facets of our individual personal identity. When our personal identity is under threat it is difficult or nearly impossible to learn and adapt. Learning and adapting takes a certain vulnerability in order to simply acknowledge that you do not know something so that you can learn something new.  Now as the virus comes into play and reshapes work for so many you have millions if not a billion people globally experiencing the first lay off of their lives with an inevitable occupational identity crisis, others rapidly adjusting to working from home wondering if their prior routines and rituals are altered indefinitely, and others wondering if their work will ever return in a post virus world and considering a full scale re-invention of self. In order for all those folks to adapt, you have to let go which is why we used the term in the subtitle. In the book, we interviewed Dr. Jeffery LePine from Arizona State University and he delineates between flexibility and adaptation, “Flexibility is the ability to pivot from one tool in your toolbox to another or from one approach to another. Adaptability requires you add something. Adaptability may require you to drop that tool and forge a new one or drop that method, unlearn it and develop an entirely new one.” That was really important for us in thinking about how we adapt and adjust our own identities. This virus is a massive and rapid required adaptation of our products, services, business models, supply chains, social interactions and even ourselves.

 FWSA: Thank you for your time, any closing thoughts?

HM: Yes I think this pandemic is our third existential test as a society. First and second were climate change and income inequality and the third is this global pandemic.  On the climate change front we have known for more than fifty years that human activity is warming the planet in irreversible ways leading to biodiversity loss, which incidentally increases our zoonotic outbreaks like coronavirus, greater wildfires, superstorms, floods, and droughts that are causing massive human displacement with as many as 145 million climate migrants, yet we have done little to change our behaviors. Income inequality, most notably in developed countries like yours and mine, has skyrocketed in the past fifty years due to a combination of policy decisions notable the underfunding of education and healthcare that dampens all of our potential. The world economic forum found that in developed countries rising income inequality results in lower economic growth, so it should be something we all care about.  Now the global pandemic threat enters and something really interesting happens, we prioritize our most vulnerable above our economy. We freeze or hibernate our economies globally to protect our elderly, those with underlying healthcare conditions, and our healthcare system itself. In doing so we put people before profit. Not only that but in finding our way to a post virus world we are driving less and flying less, which is better for the planet, and suddenly unthinkable ideas about strengthening our social safety net become practical solutions for the good of all. I feel like we have suddenly realized that we are truly interdependent, and our collective success is greatest when more of us thrive.

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