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.