Leaders And Organizations Ready For Change

Adaptation Advantage Book Cover

In a fast-changing world, we have to look past our work-based identity, move beyond the comfort of our current knowledge and skills, and prepare ourselves and the organizations we lead to adapt continuously to a rapidly changing future of work.

Renowned future-of-work strategist Heather E. McGowan is co-author with Chris Shipley of The Adaptation Advantage. Adaptability, they argue, is the most significant determinant of success for individuals and organizations, now and in the future.

What is adaptability? For McGowan, adaptability is the skill to handle ambiguity, to both learn and unlearn in a changing environment. “In work as in life, evolutionary success belongs to those who can most readily adapt.”

Adaptability as an advantage is more than theoretical. In the context of COVID-19, McGowan reflects on the near-immediate shift to working from home, telemedicine, and online learning. “That was five years of digital transformation crammed into a week, and what that says to me is nothing more than we’re a highly adaptive species. We’ve got to look at this period and say, wow, look at all that we did when pressed. Now, what could we do going forward? How do we reimagine work and learning?”

“We are incredibly well-prepared for the past, and woefully unready for a future of work that has yet to be defined.”

Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley, The Adaptation Advantage


To move forward, first break the rearview mirror. For most people in the workforce today, our training and education prepared us for a lifetime of work. “In the 1980s, skills learned in a university or on the job held their relevance for nearly three decades, about as long as a typical career arc. Today, skills have a shelf life of less than five years, according to researchers at the World Economic Forum.” (McGowan and Shipley, The Adaptation Advantage)

Organizations can no longer plan or hire according to past performance—the pace of change does not allow it.

How do companies build capacity, then? “Companies that are doing a good job screen people for culture add or shared purpose first, openness and ability to learn and adapt second and then, finally, for the role, because whatever role you’re going into, they know it’s going to change in 18 to 24 months.” McGowan describes the existing approach to hiring as “looking in the rearview mirror based on what’s been done before.” She says, “That will often get you somebody who could do the last thing you needed, not the next thing you need.”

More often than not, we will have no idea what the next thing is, until we do it. How does that work for people who have had the same role their entire careers? They have to learn how to let go.


“In truth, we are all works in progress and we need to imagine, or rather reimagine, work. In order to do that, though, we’re going to have to confront who we think we are, at least professionally, so that we can reimagine and reimagine again, and again, who we are in the context of a changing future of work.”

Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley, The Adaptation Advantage

In order to adapt and thrive in the rapidly evolving world of work, we need to break out of the identity traps that connect our sense of self to what we do. “We need to overcome the fixed-occupational identity,” McGowan says. She argues that we begin to establish that identity early on. Consider how we get to know people: we ask children ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ We ask students ‘what’s your major?’ And when we meet adults, we often ask them ‘what do you do?’ According to McGowan, this concentration on the ‘what’ is part of the problem. “We focus on this static occupational identity, when we’re going to have many of them,” McGowan explains. “We need to focus on our why—the purpose, passion, and curiosity that drives us; and our how—our ability to increase our capacity. And we have to realize that we’ll have multiple work- worlds and we can’t get too attached to those worlds, to any form of work identity."

Consider that, according to McGowan, a job loss can take twice as long to recover from than the loss of a primary relationship. “So many folks who hit 40, 50, they were in their peak job that they’ve been more or less gunning for, charging ahead toward a professional identity and riding that ladder up, up and then suddenly the ladder breaks and they’re let go. They’re thrown out of work, whether it’s a shift in strategy, a downsizing, an acquisition, whatever it may be, and they can’t ever get it back. They feel like they lost everything that they thought they were.”

As work changes and roles literally disappear, what can people do? “They have to psychologically develop the strength to reimagine themselves,” McGowan says. “Take that hard lesson as a learning and a rebirth, and that you can see that your purpose and your passion, your super power, can be recrafted and drawn in a new way, but it’s up to you, to not be so attached to the next step on your career ladder, in case that step isn’t there, anymore.”

McGowan believes that everyone needs to be able to define themselves beyond the scope of a job. “Understanding what you do, or even how you do it, pales in comparison to knowing why you do what you do.” Focusing on the ‘why’ and not the ‘what’ is an important step in building adaptability.

Another key part of developing adaptability is a willingness to accept what you don’t know. The curse of expertise, McGowan says, “is thinking you shouldn’t be questioned, or when you stop paying attention to anything that refutes your expertise.”

“That’s a trap.”

The coronavirus provides an excellent, timely example of the value in letting go of what we thought we knew. McGowan says, “We thought [the virus] was on surfaces. We were wiping everything down, and then we learned only a very small percentage of people can get the virus from surfaces, and a whole lot more can get it from droplets in the vaporization of our breath. We had to completely shift where we focused. Some people use that to say, ‘how do I know I need to wear a mask? They told us in January we didn’t need to wear it.’ We have to be comfortable enough, especially when things are changing quickly, to say, ‘I don’t know,’ and to change tactic when new information appears,” McGowan says.


“Products and services will be shortlived. Rather than optimizing for specific production, our best work will be in establishing the conditions that enable continuous and continually shifting methods of value creation.”

- McGowan and Shipley, The Adaptation Advantage

Organizations narrowly focused on their brand, product, and perception of the world, and “just selling more of that product or service, that unit of value,” McGowan says “may be missing what’s coming next.” To illustrate the point, McGowan points to the classic example of Blockbuster and Netflix. “Blockbuster was rolling out this machine: we’re going to have the best new releases. We’re going to have the best locations. We’re going to have the best turnover. And Netflix was looking at it differently: not only looking at it by the distribution methods, the DVDs by mail; Netflix was helping customers find something they didn’t know they wanted with their proprietary algorithms, which would suggest movies you might want to see that you might have otherwise missed. And Blockbuster went from $6 billion to bankrupt in six years, the shift was so fast.”

Blockbuster was focused on the output, not the input. McGowan says, “They were focused on the brand, the sales, the expansion, and more specifically how they delivered that unit of value via physical stores. They weren’t focused on their relationship with the customer and they were not agile enough to pivot when DVDs by mail became a viable business model.

How do we delight them in a way that gives them something they might not even know they wanted, something they didn’t even know how to ask for?” McGowan explains, “That’s where data comes in. In the past, data was used to look backward and decide who did a good job and who did a bad job. Data was reflective. We could only see it when we tabulated it—when it was over. Now, data gives you insights, predictions, trends.” That’s where Netflix held the adaptation advantage. While Blockbuster went from $6 billion USD in revenue/turnover in 6 years, Netflix swelled to over $15 billion in revenue and a market capitalization of over $250 billion because they continually adapted from DVDs by mail to streaming to creating original content all the while focusing on increasing their leverage of data to help delight customers with content suggestions.

The future-winning formula is more than being digital-first. McGowan argues that the future favors the organization that focuses on culture and capacity. McGowan and Shipley define culture as the expression of a company’s purpose and values, and capacity as the means by which the outputs are achieved, evidenced by the products and services, or a company’s ability to learn and create. “If culture is the heart of an organization, capacity is its brain.” And both depend on leadership and people.

To further illustrate future-ready organizations, McGowan recommends we “look at the top five companies in the world by market cap: Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet (which owns Google), Microsoft, and Apple.” She says, “Most of those companies are comprised of people who were hired to do something that hadn’t been done before. They didn’t throw out a job description and look for somebody who’s done these X things before, these Y things before, because that’s irrelevant when you’re looking to do something you’ve never done before. Those companies have a tendency to hire people who align with what they believe and what they want to do, people who are seeking to increase their own capacity; they’re trying to learn more, they’re trying to advance. They see that their future value is tied to their ability to learn and adapt. They see learning as their real pension; their real future value.” They see their value in adaptability.


“Capacity is how we think about new information and ideas in order to assess and respond to opportunity. In other words, it’s not enough to ask whether you have the people— or even the right people. You need to ask whether your people have the mindset to think about this opportunity in the right way.” McGowan and Shipley

Heather McGowan and Chris Shipley, The Adaptation Advantage

McGowan describes a company she once consulted for that demanded people be open to new ideas and effectively beat back the curse of expertise: “A highly technical biotech company, the kind of company where you have to have your PhD or your doctorate just to get the most entry-level professional job.” Imagine an organization where “everybody’s very highly educated, everybody thinks they’re an expert.”

Remarkably, this firm required that leaders be adaptable. “They wouldn’t let you get above director level unless you went through this extreme vetting process where they could prove you were not overly reliant on your expertise—that ‘if I have a hammer, everything looks like a nail’ thinking.” McGowan explains, “You don’t want those kinds of leaders, because the science world they live in is discovering new things all the time. So even though you spent X number years getting your expertise on something, we need you to look for a better way to approach it. Maybe some of the things that we’ve long-believed, things that are part of your doctorate, need to be in in question now. So, you can’t have people who rely on that expertise.”

What do organizations need to meet the opportunities presented by the future of work? McGowan’s advice to C-suite leaders is to seek out the candidates who want to inspire human potential as opposed to just drive productivity; seek candidates who see their value as elevating everybody else’s game, “so their ego takes a backseat.”

McGowan explains, “When the ego is in the driver’s seat then the candidate is too vested in my role, my position, my status, my power, my expertise. They’re not going to be able to adapt. If you can get the person who comes in and asks, ‘where’s your organization today, where might it be in five years, 10 years? What are the threads? Who’s the team? How do I invest in, empower and integrate the talents on this team?’ That’s setting the conditions for adaptation. If you’re screening to get that C-suite star who’s very invested in his or her image management, you’re going to have problems.”


As a way to look at effective working groups, McGowan cites the research of evolutionary biologist Dr. William Muir who tested a theory about the egg-laying productivity of hens. He looked at several flocks of nine chickens, putting each flock in a cage and selecting the most productive hen from each flock. He put those high-producing hens into their own cage, expecting that new flock to produce generations of superior egg-laying chickens. Instead, these hyper-competitive birds pecked each other to death and the flock quickly went from nine chickens to three, and may have dwindled to a single survivor had the experiment been allowed to continue. “Muir told us he’s been doing that research since the eighties, across every species he could,” McGowan says. “The results were always the same in the overall trend that it’s the bully that suppresses the productivity of the rest of the group. When you focus on collections, whether it’s hens or other animals, identifying the productive group and then breeding in that group, that’s where productivity soared. That’s how we have to think about teams.”

Another way to look at the relative value of a star performer is through the metaphor of sport. McGowan references Malcolm Gladwell’s statistical view of sports. She says, “If you’re looking at forming a basketball team, you get a Kobe Bryant or Michael Jordan, a Scottie Pippin or a Larry Bird. One star can make a huge difference in basketball because they can score 20, 30, 40, 50 points. In soccer, the player touches the ball for such a short period of time, you’re better off increasing the ability of your weakest players and having more average players than betting it all on a single star, because soccer works as a group.”

To carry the metaphor to the workplace, McGowan says, “That means focusing on how we can elevate everybody’s game.”


Everybody means everybody.

According to McGowan, the person or the team that learns the fastest not only has psychological safety, they also have cognitive diversity. “Unfortunately, one of the things we tend to do when building teams is pick people who think like we do,” McGowan says. “Selecting people who think differently than you, even when it may be uncomfortable, is essential.” She adds, “It’s really important to get people to check our blind spots.”

That requires confidence, and there is a direct link between confidence and the potential to be adaptable. McGowan references a study from Hewlett Packard that identified the propensity to promote men for potential and promote women for accomplishment. “We have told boys and men that they are good enough and that they’ll figure it out, that they can run with it with half the information, where we have encouraged girls and women to wait until they have all the skills.” We’ve encouraged confidence in boys and men, less so girls and women. “The challenge in that is when it comes to adaptation,” which requires confidence. The confidence to be both right and the strength to be vulnerable; the ability to be comfortable not knowing or being wrong. That is the birthplace of learning and adaptation.”

McGowan believes we need to do a better job getting women to leap forward. “We’ve got to be comfortable putting women into positions of power before they’ve proven themselves, which we are somehow more comfortable doing with men. At the same time, we have to get both men and women comfortable with vulnerability, not knowing, not having an over reliance on whatever they think their expertise is, and instead having a learner’s mindset.”

The critical confidence, she says, “is the ability to be strong enough to say, ‘I don’t know,’ in a world that’s rapidly changing.”

The coronavirus provides an opportunity to reflect on and recommit to diversity. “The only thing spreading faster than the virus is a collective sense of empathy, compassion, and shared purpose,” McGowan says. “You can see that in people thanking bus drivers and thanking essential workers and even supporting diversity issues, because the virus has laid bare all the structural inequities that we have not faced before, that we cannot ignore now. Besides,” she adds, “it isn’t just morally the right thing to do, actually it’s just good business.”


"By all estimations, the slowest rate of change you will experience for the rest of your life is ... right now."
- McGowan and Shipley, The Adaptation Advantage

We have already outsourced our memory. We’ve changed the way we bank. Communication has been completely transformed in a generation. In fact, we’ve been adapting all along. The difference now, McGowan says, is the pace. People must continue to adapt, reskill and upskill. We need to concentrate on abilities such as collaboration, design thinking, creativity, agility and empathy, what McGowan calls “uniquely human skills.”

Every time we hand something off to technology, McGowan says, “we need to reach up to learn new skills.” That’s the adaptation advantage.

“In my estimation, this inflection point may in time be understood as the single biggest and broadest inflection point since Guttenberg invented the printing press. And you just happened to be here. And it’s not over—in fact, it’s just getting started.”

- Thomas L. Friedman from the Foreword, The Adaptation Advantage

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