Adaptability – the business enabler

18 November 2020

By Sarah Knight

Adaptability – the business enabler

​Until now, employees’ performance reviews have focussed on traditional metrics such as timekeeping, communication skills and teamwork. This year, we suspect that every business with an eye to the future will add adaptability to the list. But why is this overlooked attribute suddenly so desirable and what benefits does it offer?

What does adaptability mean for businesses?

Simply put, adaptability is the ability to change to fit new conditions. When used to describe businesses, it means agile enough to evade the risks and embrace the opportunities caused by changing trends, technologies or economics.

Failure to adapt has played a role in many significant business losses in recent years. There’s no better example than the David versus Goliath story of Netflix, the DVD-by-post subscription service, versus Blockbuster, the $5 million turnover rental store. Netflix had already grown substantially in popularity when it approached Blockbuster with an offer to run its online brand. Keen to stay loyal to the bricks-and-mortar model which had serviced it so well, Blockbuster turned the offer down.

As internet speeds increased, Netflix adapted its model to offer online streaming. It now streams to over 193 million subscribers in 190 countries and releases more original content than any other network or cable channel. As for Blockbuster, it failed to adapt to the online market until it was too late and filed for bankruptcy in 2010.

Of course, we don’t all run Blockbuster sized businesses, but adaptability is just as important in SMEs, as 2020 has proven.

The importance of adaptability in smaller businesses

A business coach recently told me about one of his clients. She’d called him in a panic in the early days of lockdown, having watched her event management pipeline evaporate almost overnight. She had no idea what to do next and dreaded facing her team. He allowed her the luxury of tears for a few minutes before challenging her to find a way to adapt.

After batting ideas back and forth, she soon realised that there would be a surge in demand for online events. Within a fortnight, she’d pivoted the business online, had developed a healthy pipeline and was back on track.

Adaptability isn’t just for leaders

However adaptable that leader was, would it have worked if her team hadn’t risen to the challenge of learning new skills in a short space of time? Absolutely not. For a business to be adaptable, it must have employees who are capable of learning new skills and changing their behaviours. This year alone, the average white-collar worker will have found themselves unexpectedly working from home, getting to grips with online meetings and covering for furloughed colleagues… all whilst attempting to deliver services remotely. It’s a big ask, even for employees who thrive on change.

Fortunately, adaptability is an attribute that can be nurtured and developed, whatever your role. Here are four tried-and-tested ways to boost adaptability in your organisation:

Be open to new ideas

Our brains use ‘behavourial scripts’ to automate our behaviours, from tying shoelaces to ordering in restaurants. Learning to reject these scripts will stop you from falling into the trap of doing something the same way because that’s how it’s always been done.

Instead, open your mind to new ways of doing things, whatever your role, and encourage others to do the same. This will develop a culture of continuous improvement, making your role more enjoyable and delivering great results.

Embrace risk as a business enabler

It’s impossible to operate a business without risk, but, your adaptability will be limited if you’re naturally risk averse. Learning techniques to assess and manage risk will help you embrace new opportunities and be comfortable with a state of flux.

Expect the unexpected

It’s impossible to predict the future but thinking through ‘what if?’ scenarios will help you react more confidently when the unexpected happens. Review and rehearse business continuity plans regularly.

Recruit, recognise and reward

Adaptability is one of the most desirable skills an employee can have. Ensure that it’s a key part of person specifications and applicants are encouraged to demonstrate their adaptability at interview.

Recognising and rewarding adaptability will encourage colleagues to step outside their comfort zones. Consider integrating adaptability into your company values, making it part of annual reviews and highlighting examples in your company newsletters or internal awards.

Sarah Knight says "2020 has certainly highlighted how important adaptability is, both as a business leader and within our teams, regardless of the size of your organisation. Exploring an individuals' ability to adapt, as part of a recruitment process, means you're more likely to find someone who's willing to flex and embrace the opportunities that present themselves as circumstances change. Happy to chat if you'd like to find out how you can include this in your process, when you're looking for your next team member."

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