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Agile, adaptable or adaptive: Which organisation do you 'really' want?

Updated: May 27, 2020

An excerpt from the award winning book "The Thrive Cycle: Unlock the Adaptive Organisation Within" by Kate Christiansen.

2020 UPDATE: We're developing a Quick Reference Guide version of The Thrive Cycle book. If you'd like to be notified when it is ready, email When you're a leader, the language you use is important. Being consistent with the terms you use and what they mean, will help others understand what you’re trying to achieve from the very beginning. So, if you want to create an organisation that’s 'fit' for a world of relentless change, you need to start by being clear exactly what it is you want.

Agile, adaptable or adaptive?

The words agile, adaptive, and adaptable are frequently used as though they mean the same thing. They don't.

The word ‘agility’ is commonly used to describe a core quality an organisation needs if it is to succeed in a changing environment. The dictionary defines agile as ‘being able to move quickly and easily’.

There are in fact, times when an organisation needs to move quickly and where this is the case, the concept of agility is helpful. There are also agile methodologies that use a test-and-learn approach and these can also be highly effective.

However, when talking about your organisation, using the word ‘agile’ as though it’s synonymous with ‘adaptive’, can have unhelpful consequences. They include:

  • assuming speed is always the right answer when sometimes going slowly will deliver greater adaptive success.

  • underestimating, and under-valuing thinking as a leadership tool and showing a bias towards premature doing.

  • assuming every part of the organisation needs to be fast when different capabilities may be needed in different parts.

  • thinking ‘we just need to do what we do, but do it faster’ rather than considering a new way of doing things.

At some point you’ll probably decide that agility is a key characteristic of The Adaptive Organisation you want to create. If you do, it’s important to be very clear what you mean by the term and what makes it important within your organisational context.

Adaptable versus adaptive

Most of the time, the words adaptable and adaptive are used interchangeably. However, there is a subtle, yet important difference.

When something is adaptable, it means it can be easily adapted (generally by someone, or something) to accommodate a change. For instance, I have an adaptable dining table that can be extended to seat ten people, instead of the usual six.

Adaptive, however, means that something is consistently able to change itself, to accommodate and maximise the benefits of change.

I draw a parallel with the natural world. When a species evolves particular traits that improve its chances of survival, it creates an adaptive advantage. When a species enjoys a significant adaptive advantage, not only does it survive, it thrives.

Chameleons’ ability to change colour is often cited as an adaptive advantage, because it allows them to blend in to their environment. But this is not actually the case. Chameleons change colour to stand out to other chameleons and predators, and give warning of their current emotional state. For example, black means they are furious (telling enemies to beware), whereas other colours are used when they are looking for a mate.

They also possess another significant adaptive feature. A chameleon’s eyes can look in two different directions at the same time, a big advantage when looking out for predators.

These and other adaptive features allowed chameleons to inhabit a host of environments from rainforests to deserts, and there are now dozens of species.

"What we need is an organisation that is not just good at responding to change. We need one that's good at changing itself"

Defining The Adaptive Organisation

If we’re going to create The Adaptive Organisation, we need to start with a clear definition of what that actually means. Otherwise we risk inadvertently tying our organisation (and our people) in knots, because everyone runs around trying to achieve different things.

An organisation can be defined as ‘a group of people who work together in an organised way for a shared purpose’. While these people are supported in their endeavour by systems and processes, ultimately the likelihood of achieving the shared purpose comes down to the people. Thus, when setting out to build The Adaptive Organisation, we are seeking to create:

A purpose-driven group of people that is able to:

  • change itself (and the infrastructure that supports it) in order to capture opportunities that offer the greatest potential value; and

  • recognise those opportunities, regardless of whether they occur inside or outside the organisation; and

  • achieve all of the above to a standard and at a pace, that creates value; and

  • gives the organisation an adaptive advantage over its rivals.

How a clear definition drives success

Being adaptive is relative and so what it looks like for one organisation is different to how it looks for another. The above definition provides the necessary latitude for your organisation to define what being adaptive and adaptive advantage look like in a relevant way.

So, if you’re wanting to create a more adaptive organisation, how can you use this definition? You can use it to:

  • help build alignment by reminding people what you’ve set out to achieve and why.

  • help you to stay focused because you can use it to test whether the proposed approach is delivering an organisation that meets all four of the defined criteria. If it is, great! If not, then is it really the right approach?

  • help you to engage others by providing a starting-point for conversations?

There is no time like the present to start building a more adaptive organisation.

So, why not share this definition with colleagues within your organisation and ask them:

  • what do you think this means within the context of our organisation?

  • to what extent is this describing our organisation today?

  • what kind of advantage could be achieved?

I’ll look forward to hearing how you go.

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Kate Christiansen has spent 20 years adapting large organisations to strategic change. She partners with CEOs and their Executive Teams to identify and release the adaptive potential of their organisations and create a sustainable adaptive advantage. Kate is author of The Thrive Cycle: Unlock The Adaptive Organisation Within.

Find out how adaptive your organisation is by completing the Adaptive Audit that's included when you buy the book. You'll also discover whether your organisation is a Surfer, Swimmer, Splasher or Sinker and how you can use the Six Elements of Adaptive Success to bring about sustainable change.


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