Is your organization adaptive?

Confessions of real-world adaptive organization designers

April 26, 2024
6 min read
woman smiling while writing at a desk in a work context

This article is part of our series How we work. It is available also in Italian and Spanish.

If you would like to receive updates on this and other topics related to the evolution of the world of work, subscribe to our newsletter here:

If you want to know more, or engage your organization with this approach, please get in touch, here:

A question we have been hearing more and more asked in the last few years:

Is my organization adaptive?

Explicitly spoken by the curious, implicitly suggested or even inferred by many so-called experts, and too often referred to the organizational model at play. Is this or that organization adaptive? Well, if you are interested in this very question, then look no further — here goes your answer: yes.

It would be nice and easy for us to sell you yet another recipe to make your organization adaptive, after convincing you that it is not. After all, it is rather self-evident how current times call for a breed of organizations that can cope or even thrive on uncertainty, complexity and variability. Isn’t it? It is. And yet, the topic is too beautifully deep to twist it like that, and dismiss a legitimate question only because it’s been asked with a bit of a reductionist mindset.

Indeed, the real entry point into this topic is that all human work-systems are adaptive, yes. Organizations are adaptive by their own nature. And so is yours too. In fact, they are complex adaptive systems by the nature of the field of nuanced relationships among the thousand of tangible and intangible elements they are made of, like persons, technologies, ideas, memories, processes, teams, habits, fears, buildings, families, and a whole lot more, both in their core and out into their ecosystems.

Let’s try and rephrase our question then, allowing it to be more generative and a bit more fun. Shall we? For example, let’s ask:

How adaptive is my organization?

Yes, now it looks messy enough to play with it! Being adaptive is not a binary matter, it is a whole space of possibilities. It is a field. At Cocoon Pro, we call that field “the Evolution Space”. How and how much adaptive your organization is depends at least on three families of relationships: your identity, your context and your trajectory. In fact, just as true as if you consider the adaptability of a person, the way in which an organization adapts and evolves, is unique. And it is also unique in any given moment of its life journey.

Where does this take us, then? Let’s see. We have said that a human work-system is a complex adaptive system by nature. It is also a peculiar one, because of its human nature that brings into the mix very special emergent properties, like culture for example. Moreover, while many similarities exist across different human work-systems and across different scales of the same one, the deepest truth is that each one is unique and uniquely evolving.

a blurry crowd of asian people in the street with a person taking a picture with her cellphone

Up to this point we have just presented plain facts — the maybe often neglected but yet self-evident reality of what organizations are. Now, in order to make it more interesting and more relevant to your work, let’s move on and introduce our perspective on the matter, driven by our studies, exchanges and practice around the world. There are two main points we help our customers deal with:

  1. How is your current organizational setup allowing your org’s adaptiveness to be expressed and actualized?
  2. How are the ecosystems your org is part of currently calling for adaptiveness?

For a whole century most of what is today known as management practice and organizational design discipline has been developed around the need to make organizations more stable, durable and predictable. Since Taylor’s work on scientific management and throughout many decades of stable markets dominated by a few capital-equipped players, the whole discipline of organizing work has been based on the need to constrain the natural adaptiveness of human systems, in order to reduce their variability and be able to control their outcomes, raise efficiency and optimize over time. The advantage coming from this approach is stability.

Both stability and adaptiveness are desirable qualities though. Neither one can be considered more desirable than the other up-front, without considering the reality of each organization in each moment of her life. On the one hand, designing and managing organizations for stability, through an engineering approach based on processes design, measure, standardization, control, has the downside of generating a mechanistic culture that tends to kill initiative, systemic understanding and often even trust. On the other hand, designing and managing for adaptability, through an organic approach based on collective wisdom and individual creativity and initiative, has the downside of raising entropy or even chaos, generating feelings of confusion, lack of safety and even fear.

As it is clearly presented in the Adaptive Organization Design manifesto, in fact, these two approaches lay at the extremes of a polarity. Neither of them should be, or even could be, pursued alone. Rather, learning how to develop, integrate and practice both dynamically is the true discipline of Adaptive Organization design and development.

What can be predicted and optimized in your work, should be. The scopes in which an engineering approach is needed, call for expertise and should be organized with careful process design, measurement and standardization. While, at the same time, the scopes of your org’s life in which the variations, reactions and outcomes can’t be predicted, being inherently emergent, should be dealt with by unleashing the full potential of your unique human work-system and generating sound resilience. These are the domains of mastery, that is very different from expertise, and need a different organization design approach, a different support for the people involved, a deeper linkage with your trajectory in the broader ecosystems — or call it strategy, if you will.

an octopus at the botton of the sea

Our work, in order to stay honest and — maybe even more important — effective, should lead you to the ability of fully understanding this polarity and implementing what is needed in each of your organizational scopes in every phase of your journey. This is, after all, what an adaptive organization is. There are no off-the-shelf models to follow. At best, you can look at what others are doing to have some inspiration, and spark some ideas about what is possible. Let’s quote Myron Rogers when he states it perfectly:

The process you use to get to the future is the future you get.

A lot of the power of Adaptive Organization Design lies in the journey of design itself, a whole scale change journey in which your people explores who they are together, focus on what they can and want to be — and why — and embed all of that in a coherent system of organizational dynamics which is your new setup — the beginning of a new journey. And from there, with the whole lot they will have learned in the making of it, they will be able to evolve it gradually, continuously and skillfully themselves.

No wonder then, that 97% of adaptive self-governing organizations deliver superior performance in their markets around the world, while only 36% of those driven by a “blind obedience” archetype do. And no wonder that their number has grown threefold in only four years (see the HOW Report by LRN if you like figures and research details). Unleashing the brains and the guts of people in a coherent organizational systems that allows both optimization and variation is an art that pays back.

How to do it? Iteratively, passionately, smartly and carefully. Or, at least, this is what we believe and how we practice it, including inside our own organization since 2011. It works, and we love bringing it to a new breed of organizations that are now awakening to it everywhere.

This article is part of our series How we work. It is available also in Italian and Spanish.

If you would like to receive updates on this and other topics related to the evolution of the world of work, subscribe to our newsletter here:

If you want to know more, or engage your organization with this approach, please get in touch, here:

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