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Improvise, adapt, overcome: Your how-to guide for an ever-changing world

August 2, 2022 - 15 min read

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What is adaptability?

Why is adaptability important?

How to increase adaptability

Moving forward

Late at night, in a dimly-lit bar, a trio of jazz musicians takes the stage. 

At first, you recognize the song. But then the musicians take a turn, launching into an improvised version of the tune. It sounds chaotic but beautiful — the mastery of their instruments on full display. 

The magic of jazz music is in its unpredictability. What seems like chaos to the casual observer is actually a masterclass in improvisation and adaptability. Each musician reacts to the other, none of them certain where they’ll go next.

An apt analogy for the fluidity of your life and career.

The only constant in the world is change. And, like the best jazz musicians, it’s your job to adapt.

Adaptability is a skill like any other. It can be learned. And when you do learn, it’ll make you a better and more ethical leader. It will increase your energy and motivation. It’ll also boost your merit in the workplace.

And if you’re in a leadership role, resilience is a top skill you want in your team. It’s a key part of building trust, increasing employee retention, and thriving in a fast-moving industry.

Here’s everything you need to know on how to increase adaptability.

What is adaptability?

Adaptability is an umbrella term covering numerous soft skills that help you change your attitude, routine, and habits to adjust to a changing environment. It includes competencies such as:

  • Cognitive agility: the extent to which we can adapt our thought processes to new situations
  • Resilience: the ability to recover from hard times and embrace change
  • Flexibility: the brain’s ability to adapt to new, changing, or unplanned events
  • Growth mindset: the belief that you can develop any skills you put your mind to
  • Innovation: the capacity to come up with and implement new ideas
  • Learning: the capacity to incorporate lessons from the past into your current work
  • Creativity: the ability to think outside of the box, combine elements in interesting ways, or find solutions not previously considered
  • Curiosity: the reflex to dig deeper on a topic, unearthing vital information to your work
  • Strategic thinking: the ability to visualize, plan, and execute a plan with your available resources.

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Why is adaptability important?

Adaptability is important at all levels of an organization. Let’s go over why it’s worth building flexibility in yourself and your team.

The importance of personal adaptability

Adaptation is essential in the modern workplace. These days, industries turn on a dime, with numerous externalities affecting an organization’s work. 

The COVID-19 pandemic reminded everyone of this fact. Almost overnight, entire companies started working from home, struggled with supply chain issues, and reassured clients that productivity won’t be affected.

And as governments tweaked their pandemic restrictions, organizations continued to pivot in response. It’s no wonder “resilience” was one of the top 14 skills HR employers looked for in 2021. Companies want people who can adapt to them and grow with them.

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Improving your adaptability will help you succeed in these rapid-changing environments. When you improve your resilience, you’ll:

  • Embrace challenges. The ebbs and flow of work won’t phase you; you’ll always be up to the task.
  • Become a better leader. You will improve your decision-making and help your team overcome new challenges.
  • Stay relevant in your industry. People will trust that you’re aware of current trends and best practices.

The importance of an adaptable workplace

Adaptability isthe new competitive advantage.” Here are six benefits of fostering a resilient organization:

  1. Better teamwork. An organization full of adaptable people can communicate and work together on finding solutions.
  2. More competitive. Industries change all the time. A company that can pivot is more likely to succeed in the long run.
  3. Increased innovation. A resilient team is a creative team, which is great for generating innovative ideas.
  4. Quick mobilization. Adaptable teams are quick to spring into action, no matter the situation.
  5. Faster decisions. When people know how to adapt together, they can quickly make decisions. This allows them to outflank the competition.
  6. Increased initiative. Adaptable people are natural go-getters. They know where they’re needed and start working without being asked.

How to increase adaptability

There are many ways to be resilient. Here are our tips on how to be adaptable and flexible.

How to enhance career adaptability

Improving your career adaptability will help you stay hireable or promotable in evolving industries. Here are some resilience-related skills and attributes that will keep you relevant:

  1. Problem-solving. This skill involves acknowledging a problem and finding ways to fix it — a key tenet of adaptability. This is a skill that is useful in any industry.
  2. Teamwork skills. It’s easier to adapt to tough situations when you can play nicely with others.
  3. Creativity. When you list this on your resume, you tell employers you can adjust and find creative solutions to problems.
  4. Project management. When you understand the ins and outs of project planning, you can tweak things when issues arise.
  5. Certified. Making sure you’re up-to-date on the latest industry trends will keep you relevant among your peers.
  6. Curiosity. Keeping an open mind and asking good questions will help uncover information essential to problem-solving.
  7. Positivity. When you have a defeatist mindset, you admit failure before you’ve even begun. Positivity will keep your spirits up and help you find creative solutions to problems.
  8. The ability to fail gracefully. It’s normal to make mistakes, so don’t be afraid of them. Make sure to learn from your failures so you can do better next time.
  9. Ability to leave your comfort zone. Sometimes change is unexpected and uncomfortable. You should learn how to thrive in those situations. 

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For personalized tips on how to improve your adaptability, BetterUp can help. Our coaches will work with you to identify your strengths, weaknesses, and how you can shift your thinking in different environments.

How to improve adaptability in the workplace

If you’re a hiring manager, you already know the value of flexibility in your work environment. Here are some tips on how to increase this vital resource:

  1. Hire people with adaptable traits. Look for people who have the skills and attributes listed above. Not only will they be adaptable, but they can help your current employees be adaptable, too. (Bonus points if “adaptability” is one of their skills.)
  2. Offer adaptability training. Many virtual or in-person seminars can help improve employees’ adaptation skills. Start your research by looking at services like BetterUp and LinkedIn Learning.
  3. Institute an open-door policy. This allows employees to come to you with feedback during organizational changes. This kind of information is vital to helping you adapt.
  4. Communicate the changes clearly. Use town hall meetings, video conferences, and organization-wide emails to explain the “why” behind company transitions.
  5. Lead by example. Change starts at the top. If you’re adaptable, your employees will be, too.

How to measure adaptability in the workplace

If you want to know whether you’ve succeeded, you’ll need some kind of feedback mechanism. Here are some tools to consider:

  • Send out an anonymous survey
  • Track the number of errors that occur when employees are confronted with change
  • Check-in with team leaders to see how they’re doing

There’s also a qualitative element to measuring adaptation — you’ll just know it when you see it. Here are some successful examples of adaptability, so you can identify it in your own team.

  • Your clients are reporting bugs in your company’s software. Your coding team sprang into action to fix the problem right away. They told you after they’d solved the problem.
  • A low-level employee noticed a typo on the company website. They flagged it to their superior, who fixed it within the day.
  • There’s a topic trending on social media that’s related to your company. Your communications team seizes the opportunity to promote your product and adjusts their production schedule accordingly.

How to improve situational adaptability in other areas of your life

There are many everyday opportunities to train your resilience. Here are some small things you can do to work out your flexibility:

  1. Seek out new experiences and opportunities to keep learning. Take a class. Go on a trip. Watch a TED Talk. Every new experience will teach you how to react in different situations.
  2. Practice self-awareness to understand how you react in different contexts. When you’re stressed, angry, tired, happy, hungry, or relaxed, you are a different person. Knowing yourself will help you control your behavior, regardless of your mental and physical state.
  3. Find solutions to even the smallest problems. Is the sink leaking? Look up a video and learn how to fix it. Don’t have space for your new bike? Rearrange things to make it fit. These small tasks help you flex your problem-solving muscles.
  4. Learn when to ignore the small stuff. Some things simply don’t deserve your attention or frustration. A spilled cup of water doesn’t need the same emotional energy as a personal crisis.

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Moving forward

Like the best jazz musicians, it’s important to know how to increase your adaptability. It’s an essential trait for getting through life and work’s toughest challenges. 

As an organization, an adaptable team will drive you toward success. As an individual, your flexibility will earn you a valuable spot on people’s A-lists. 

To continue your self-improvement journey, try working with BetterUp. We’re here to help you learn new skills, become more self-aware, and maximize your potential.

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Published August 2, 2022

Maggie Wooll

Managing Editor

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