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Every success story is a tale of constant adaption

“Every success story is a tale of constant adaption, revision and change.” Richard Branson, business entrepreneur

Constant adaption doesn’t have a beginning, middle and end. In most cases, a temporary end is merely a segue-way to the sequel. It’s ultimately what life demands of us. Let’s start with the good news.

We are all experts at continually adapting

Our life up until this point has been based on us being continually adaptive, whether it’s progressing through different stages of development as children, adapting to new schools, changing to new jobs, establishing relationships with new colleagues, negotiating changes in friendships, handling bereavements or adopting new technologies as part of the on-going updates in life. There’s a host of large and small adaptations we constantly make; sometimes by choice, but often not.

Yes, we like familiarity so change can be hard, but this is not the whole story. Our brains are actually hardwired to also seek out novelty. The brain reacts to novelty by releasing dopamine which makes us want to go exploring in search of a reward. This reward system is not actually designed to make us feel good, but instead, to help us to learn. While the average neuron in the brain is connected to 10,000 other cells, the neurons that make up parts of the reward system have cells that create 50x as many connections as the average neuron! Throughout human history, seeking novelty has given us a survival advantage. Without it, we wouldn’t be driven to learn new things or invent solutions to constantly changing problems. What’s more, our brains tend to find problem-solving gratifying.

The implications? We should encourage ourselves and others to explore the novelties around change – even amplifying and honing in on the new. Secondly, wherever possible we should involve people in solving the puzzle or challenge; the solution to which will ultimately bring about the need to adapt.

This is exactly what we did recently with managers at The Princes Trust. We set about collectively getting involved to tackle the challenge: “How to successfully adapt to continually changing circumstances?” – which is pertinent to most of us.

In exploring this, 6 key take-outs emerged. Given that our brains love novelty, we hope you’ll find some novel ideas here of interest! We used different thinking strategies to explore these ideas, one of which is Link Thinking which is about taking ideas and inspirations from across life to apply them to the challenge in question. It means that ideas are not straight out of change management textbooks, but self-generated and fresher than the usual advice, and can be brought to life through analogies.

1. Keep your eye on the point

This is about the purpose. It will surprise very few people to learn that understanding the ‘why’ behind change is essential. The important part here is to remember that it is the ‘Why’ and not the ‘What’ that’s critical. The ‘What’ easily gets out-dated and can’t stay constant in the same way due to unintended consequences, changing circumstances and unpredictability. The purpose provides the direction to run in, even if the route and the pathways change along the way. Short term milestones can be reached, but longer term goals may have moved before you get there.

There’s another interesting idea relating to this. It’s about zooming in on the current purpose and not holding on or being held back by the past. Just like the climber who famously cut off his own forearm to save his life after being trapped, or just like trees which close off diseased or damaged parts of themselves rather than be killed off in their entirety (which can prove really effective, particularly considering that one of the oldest surviving trees has been radiocarbon dated at 4,765 years; older than Stonehenge or the pyramids). When the context changes the ‘what’ can also rapidly shift, even if the ‘why’ remains the same.

The implications? Focus on the current purpose and short term goals. Make sure the ‘why’ is the real, big reason behind the change. Longer term goals need to be held lighter than they often are. Focus on the present, and release past goals.

2. Make the most of what you’ve got

What if we viewed adaptability as a core capability? By doing so, it’s likely to encourage you and others to more explicitly consider existing resources and how to capitalise on existing strengths.

It’s like when you’re looking to make dinner and you start by reviewing what you’ve already got in your fridge. Flexibility is asking yourself what else you could use to do the same job in a different way if there’s a missing ingredient. This is about recognising what resources can be flexed and applied to the challenge in hand. Just like a leopard has the power to modify its performance, combining a capability to track its prey on the ground and also climb trees to hunt; despite not being able to change its spots.

The implications? Encourage ourselves and others to consider what strengths, reserves and resources can be actively brought into play. Recognise adaptability as a capability which can be built on and leveraged. Build up resources and tools for this, just like with anything else.

3. Vary your play

This is about increasing your options and varying your responses beyond your default. Just like in basketball where there’ll be times for both offensive and defensive manoeuvres, times for the riskier 3-point long shot and times when you have to look over the top of the chaos to find the openings; you need variety in your responses to fully adapt successfully to each changing scenario. Change is unlikely to be all downsides and disadvantage. It will come with benefits and opportunities as well as risks and drawbacks. It requires a combination of pace and variation in how you respond.

The implications? Understand your own defaults and those of others. See where you can expand, re-balance and learn new plays. Go beyond your typical responses. 

4. Taste as you go

This is about focussing in on what could or should be added and not just being all consumed by what gets discarded or taken away during change. Just like adding lemon juice to green tea can increase the level of antioxidant absorbed by the body by more than 5x, we should explore what can be added to improve the outcome in question. It’s about experimenting, adjusting and continually monitoring – and like when you’re cooking a good chilli, you taste as you go.

The implications? Look for the missing ingredients that may make a difference to the outcome. Be open to experimentation. If what you’ve added doesn’t work, remove it or try something else. The key is to keep monitoring and adapting as you go.

5. Take a short breather

There is a lot written about the importance of mindsets and attitudes. One person’s ‘burnt’ is another person’s ‘caramelised’. It will feel familiar to talk of the need for resilience, proactivity, open-mindedness, flexibility and positivity. These are obviously all important. However, there’s one aspect within this that may be less top of mind. That’s the idea of building in reflection time. It’s about finding the breathing space. In sport, we have the half time review, and we should build in these breaks to our own lives to take stock and prepare for the next surge.

The implications? Make sure there are some pockets of reflection time for yourself and others, regardless of the pace of change and the continual nature of adapting. These can be pre-planned or opportunistic. Either way, find the time to catch your breath.

6. Stick with others

Understand how others are feeling about change. Find different perspectives, ask questions, talk things over and ultimately listen. People respond very differently to each other. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that yours is the only view as other people’s perspectives may challenge your own. People need support to move forward; it’s not a solo activity.

The implications? Don’t isolate yourself and make sure no one else is isolated either. Keep communicating, stay connected, be there for others. Ultimately, supporting others may be a key way to supporting yourself. 

So, how to successfully adapt to continually changing circumstances?

Perhaps we can take inspiration from the immortal jellyfish. They have the unique ability as adults to transform back to their juvenile states over and over again. We should be inspired to treat change as continual, rather than a one-off event.

Next time you’re conscious of the need to constantly adapt and it feels hard, try this:

  • Keep your eye on the point – focus on the ultimate purpose of change
  • Make the most of what you’ve got – capitalise on your existing strengths
  • Vary your play – increase your response options so you don’t get stuck in default
  • Taste as you go – think about what needs adding as well as taking away
  • Take a short breather – build in some reflection time
  • Stick with others – stay connected, don’t get isolated