The Future Is Uncertain. Here’s How to Ensure Your Team Can Adapt.

The Future Is Uncertain. Here’s How to Ensure Your Team Can Adapt.

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As teams have scrambled to adapt to new conditions in the wake of the pandemic, many have devised exciting and highly productive new ways of relating to each other and getting their work done. The best teams transformed their ways of working through what we call “radical adaptability.” These are teams that went beyond mere coping with the crisis as an adaptive response. They used the crisis to reappraise and reinvent their work processes so that they could continue to adapt to unpredictable change in the years to come. This article discusses four essential ways to build radically adaptable teams in our new world of work: collaboration, agility, resilience, and foresight. The radically adaptive response entails fundamental changes to how the organization manages its workforce, develops new business models, and executes on its organizational purpose.

When are we ever going back to the office?

Remember March 2020, when most of us expected it might be in two or three months? Then summer gave way to fall and winter. Some set their sights on returning mid-2021. That thought is now a distant memory.

As the global pandemic begins its third year, it’s high time to recognize we’re never going back to the way things were. We’ve entered an entirely new world of work.

The Covid-19 pandemic has killed millions of people worldwide and has caused untold pain and trauma for many millions more in terms of financial losses, lingering illnesses, and agonizing grief. And, as with all crises, the pandemic has also brought out the best in many people. As teams within organizations have scrambled to adapt to their new conditions, many have devised exciting and highly productive new ways of relating to each other and getting their work done. What can we learn from the advances the pandemic has inspired?

As we detail in our book Competing in the New World of Work, there is a consistent pattern of leadership competencies that have proven to be most successful in these turbulent times. Through our research involving interviews with more than 2,000 corporate team leaders, we have found that the best results were achieved by teams that did more than merely accommodate their changing conditions. The best teams transformed their ways of working through what we call “radical adaptability.” These are teams that went beyond mere coping with the crisis. They used the crisis to reappraise and reinvent their work processes so that they could continue to adapt to unpredictable change in the years to come. Here are the four essential ways to build radically adaptable teams in our new world of work:

1. Collaborate Through Inclusion

During the pandemic, teams were forced to break through organizational silos and find innovative solutions wherever they could, within the organization or beyond. We call this process “teaming out,” which redefines team membership to include whoever might be critical to achieving the team mission.

The best teams embraced the richness of diversity and inclusion offered by virtual, remote, and hybrid teamwork. They developed new work habits and processes to extract the most value from these opportunities. Some organizations began to explore how online inclusion and collaboration could fuel innovation at scale. Global companies such as Google, AT&T, and Deutsche Telekom began using their employee networks to crowdsource ideas on product innovation and policy development. The Dow Chemical Company, in particular, began using digital virtual tools to collaborate with small customers who previously lacked direct communication with the company. A bold new remote-first approach to external partnerships helped make 2020 a year of innovation and transformation for Dow, as it generated 80%  more leads than in its historically best years. “It gives us opportunities to do things better than we did in the past, and it overcomes some of the limitations of doing things in person,” Dow’s chief commercial officer, Dan Futter, told us. “We’re just scratching the surface of where that can take us.”

2. Lead Through Agile Management

Our research showed how pandemic-disrupted companies as diverse as Delta Air Lines, General Motors, and Unilever used the principles of agile management to launch new product lines and processes within weeks, instead of months or years. Delta rapidly launched an entirely new Global Cleanliness Division, General Motors took just a month to retool its factory lines to start making respiratory ventilators, and Unilever, which had no hand sanitizer in the U.S. market, developed and started delivering the new product to stores within six weeks.

By operating in a kind of “crisis agile” mode, they gave nimble, self-organizing teams the freedom to rapid-test ideas and iterate solutions without going up the chain of command for approvals. They produced extraordinary results in record time. Now the challenge is how to learn from the “crisis agile” experience and build sustainable agile practices into everyday work.

Agile teams with clarity of mission and adequate resources are capable of self-organizing and self-managing. The teams decide which approaches, people, and resources will be required to achieve their objectives, and the behavior within the team evolves from authority-centric norms into customer-centric cultures. Accountability runs from each member to the team, and from the team to each member.

Target, 3M, Dell, and other companies already had well-developed teams for teaching and executing on agile methods  before the pandemic. Target has an agile learning center called Target Dojo, where employees are expected to spend almost one-fifth of their time learning new skills centered on agile. This level of support for agile culture gave Target a considerable competitive advantage in dealing with the disruptions and unpredictable changes that took place during the pandemic’s first year.

3. Promote Team Resilience

Resilience, defined as the ability to bounce back from adversity, had normally been considered a personal matter — the responsibility of each individual team member. The pandemic brought out into the open the vital importance of shared responsibility. On high-performing teams, leaders promote the idea that everyone is responsible and accountable for each other’s health and well-being. When the emphasis is put on team resilience, and when team members pick up responsibilities for each other, the team as a unit can maintain its emotional and physical energies, even when individual members are encountering hardships. This is why some super-resilient teams exceeded expectations for bouncing back from the pandemic’s many adversities. These teams actually bounced forward.

We determined a set of team behaviors that are the most reliable diagnostic indicators of team resilience — psychological safety, positive intent, fast and frequent check-ins, generosity, gratitude, and empathy among them. Teams that stress the importance of everyone being able to voice their needs and challenges are able to solve problems more quickly and collaboratively, and get to bolder action faster. Remote and hybrid teamwork demands an extra level of mindfulness in this regard. Leaders of remote and hybrid teams need to be much more conscious and deliberate about checking in and giving positive reinforcement — leadership practices that may have been done more casually in person in the past.

4. Develop Active Foresight

Why were so many companies caught completely flat-footed by the pandemic? Back in 2006, Harvard Business Review ran an entire special section called Preparing for a Pandemic. Bill Gates predicted in 2015 that “microbes not missiles” were more likely to kill 10 million people in the coming decades. The risk of a pandemic disrupting business operations was around the world was well-understood but almost universally disregarded. To paraphrase Peter Drucker’s axiom about predicting the future, the threat was “visible but not yet seen.”

How many other threats — and opportunities — are on your horizon? What future possibilities are currently “visible but not yet seen”? Corporate foresight, which is usually a practice confined to strategic planning exercises, is something that every organization should integrate into regular operations. Every team is capable of developing simple processes and monthly reviews that give that team the ability to see around corners. Teams can use data and industry knowledge they accumulate on a day-to-day basis to collaborate on solutions and design action scenarios that will help them mitigate risks and exploit new possibilities.

Moving Forward as an Organization.

These four practices of collaboration, agility, resilience, and foresight can create a circular flow state in which teams can operate at peak performance. The essence of Radical Adaptability is that it is predictive and proactive, completely unlike the typical adaptive responses to change, which tend to be reactive and conformist. At the organizational level, the radically adaptive response to change entails fundamental changes to how the organization manages its workforce, develops new business models, and executes on its organizational purpose.

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