How to Build a Culture of Adaptability

Oct 7, 2021

Leaders often use the phrase, “This [insert project name] isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon.” When applied to business strategy, the phrase means that change takes time. Be patient. Don’t rush. Prepare. Train. At the finish line, you’ll break through the tape victorious. While the phrase is intended to remind everyone that big changes don’t happen overnight, there’s a flaw in its wisdom for today’s leaders and employees – because it implies that there is a finish line.

These days, it might be better to take a note from Nike’s 1977 print ad campaign that said, “There is No Finish Line.” Think about that for a minute. Do you approach strategic imperatives as if there’s a finish line? Or do you acknowledge that in an age of continuous disruption, there can be no finish line? Put another way, are you planning your future as if there’s going to be a return to status quo, or are you building a culture of adaptability?

When leaders plan as if there’s a finish line, they tend to focus on tactics and rigid rules that will get everyone to a final destination. The problem is, by the time they reach the final destination, everything has shifted again, and the original solution doesn’t address the current problem.

So, why do leaders often default to this type of thinking? For one thing, there’s pressure for leaders to have “the right answer” or the “final solution”. There’s comfort in driving toward a finish line.  It’s the model we know. Surely, we all want to understand where we’re headed and feel a sense of accomplishment when we reach our destination. This isn’t to say that tactics and goals aren’t important. They are. But they are point-in-time solutions to situations that are temporary.

In a recent McKinsey & Co. study, researchers refer to this type of short-term thinking as “the finish-line effect”. When leaders fail to build a culture of adaptability, it can increase attrition and dissatisfaction. Employees want to work for companies that can stay ahead of the curve rather than be drowned by the next rising tide.

Many leaders today are grappling with how to address the changing work environment. A finish line approach is to launch a policy that defines specific days that employee must be in the physical office. An adaptable approach means meeting your workforce where they are today and leaving room for the policy to quickly adjust if you need to bring employees into the office daily or if you need to enable them to all work remotely again. You could even decentralize decision making and let teams decide how to best to accomplish their jobs as projects, people, and tasks change over time.

Making adaptability part of your overall strategic mindset requires change and practice. If you want to build an adaptive culture but you (or your team) are resistant to change, it won’t work.

What does an adaptable workplace look like?

  1. They accept that uncertainty is here to stay.
  2. They hire diverse team members.
  3. They hire leaders who are adaptable.
  4. They present several possible paths to a solution.
  5. They are open to experimentation, interpretation, and failure.
  6. They are not rule bound. There’s a navigational north star, but it doesn’t define the paths you take to reach and surpass it.
  7. They think beyond near-term tactics to longer-term goals.
  8. They encourage constant learning.

Stop thinking about the sprint. Stop thinking about the marathon and finish line. Build a culture of adaptability. To quote another famous Nike ad campaign, “Just Do It.” 


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