Adaptability – a key skill we must develop in ourselves and in others

Emma Sue Prince
Director
Unimenta
Columnist
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We know it’s now more important than ever to be flexible and agile, with plenty of resourcefulness and creativity to respond effectively to challenges and grab new opportunities. Why? Because things now change at a far greater speed and pace than ever before. Change is with us, it seems constant and, as we have seen in recent years, so are disappointment and difficult times. The ability to bounce back, re-assess and adapt is a top one.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.  -Charles Darwin

The dictionary definition I found is “the ability to change (or be changed) to fit changed circumstance”.   I really like this because, for me, if it’s an ability, that means it can be taught and learnt.

Every person has the basic capability to be adaptable – without this we would not be able to function in the world.

So, given the importance of developing adaptability, surely the more opportunities there are (or that we are presented with) that invite us to adapt successfully, the better! Doesn’t this mean embracing change rather that our natural first reaction, which is to resist it. Adaptability in our world today means a whole bunch of things:

Keeping calm in the face of difficulties. Persisting in the face of difficulties. Taking on new challenges at short notice. Saying “YES’ to challenges. Dealing with changing priorities and workloads. Improvising. Bouncing back from setbacks and showing a positive attitude.  Keeping an open mind. Seeing the bigger picture.

Probably all of these, and more.

When we push the envelope, when we intentionally put ourselves in situations that are outside our comfort zone, we grow.

In today’s environment, surrounded by highly intelligent and specialized knowledge workers, trading on old knowledge and skills, relying too much on our titles as a definition of our work and what we do, believing in job security are not going to work any more. We need to adapt by continually evolving and reinventing ourselves. It means continuing to grow and transform, and, in a way, become better versions of ourselves. This applies to every level in an organisation, and to each of us regardless of what our job is: change or perish!

Looked at positively, I think this enables us to continually work towards and fulfil our individual potential and to not necessarily stop, once we’ve reached a certain level or point in our career and life. This is probably a good thing, given that we are all going to be living and working longer.

And by learning how to be more adaptable, we also become better equipped to respond when faced with a life crisis. Resilient people often use these events as an opportunity to branch out in new directions. While some people may be crushed by abrupt changes, highly resilient individuals are able to adapt and thrive. So how do we begin to develop this quality in ourselves and how do we, as trainers, develop this in others. How can we make sure this is part of communication skills training, leadership training, or any kind of soft skills training?

In ourselves, I think it is as simple as looking for opportunities to try out new things and being open to new ideas. In small ways, like going to the gym, we can exercise our adaptability muscles by changing plans at short notice, dealing with unexpected demands gracefully and calmly and doing something new like singing or learning a new language.

As trainers, we need to give people maximum opportunities to go out of their comfort zone through experiential learning, through “real play” exercises – some great ideas here, creativity and problem-solving. I think we also need to better integrate adaptability as an explicit skill into our training and workshop plans and proposals. Many of the exercises we currently use with learners probably create stronger adaptability as an outcome, though this may not be explicit. We can also think about using comedy improvisation as a tool. And have you ever tried using a singing workshop or forum theatre in your training? Any trainer can bring elements of these into their workshops, without necessarily being specialists or experts in the field.

There is even a test, the Emotional Competence Inventory,  which measures adaptability on four scales: openness to new ideas, adaptation to situations, handling of unexpected demands and adapting or changing strategy.

Individuals who cultivate a variety of skills seem brighter, more energetic and more adaptable than those who know how to do one thing only. - Robert Shea

I’m interested in comments from other trainers and practitioners on developing adaptability and incorporating it more effectively into training.

About Emma Sue Prince

Emma Sue is author of The Advantage – the 7 key soft skills you need to get ahead published by Pearson Business. She has designed an experiential learning workshop based on these skills: adaptability, empathy, integrity, optimism, being proactive, critical thinking and resilience and is currently licensing trainers to deliver these. 

http://www.unimenta.com/The-Advantage-training/Licensed-trainer

Emma Sue provides consultancy in emerging economies and travels regularly to India, Bangladesh and Tanzania advising on a range of large funded projects. She runs a free membership site – Unimenta – for practitioners working in soft skills. When not working Emma Sue runs a local gospel choir in her home town of Godalming, Surrey and is an avid baker.

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