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Book Summary: Adaptability – The art of winning in an age of uncertainty by Max McKeown and Kogan Page

Organizational success and failure can be reduced to one thing, or so argues management consultant Max McKeown in his scientific and cultural look at adaptability around the globe and through the ages. If groups can’t change and adapt appropriately, they can’t succeed. McKeown offers case studies from companies you know, such as Starbucks, providing insight into familiar storylines. Some of his other examples aren’t as famous but are just as compelling: He looks at civil war in Liberia, computer game development and Italian bureaucracy to flesh out his 17 rules (which would be just as good without those few swear words) for adapting and, thus, succeeding.

McKeown’s rules are eye-catching, but they don’t always connect smoothly to the stories or a plan of action. As such, some of the books work better as a history of adaptability than as a manual for acquiring that skill. Still, an eager reader can tease out techniques and ideas for becoming more adaptable, and McKeown offers warm, inspirational tales that provide general road maps for successful adaptation. We believe leaders of companies small or large looking to motivate their employees or themselves will find value here.

Adaptability - The art of winning in an age of uncertainty by Max McKeown and Kogan Page


  • Success in business and beyond requires adaptation in its many different forms.
  • Survival isn’t a success; adapting to win requires trying a variety of approaches to your particular challenge.
  • To adapt well, you must follow three steps: See the need to adapt, determine the method to use, and make the adaptation in your actions and attitude.
  • Adapting successfully doesn’t necessarily require more hours of work.
  • It does require thinking more astutely, creatively, and openly.
  • Don’t make rigid plans for your business. Growth isn’t always the path to success.
  • Recognize failure and problems as adaptation issues.
  • Understand the rules of any industry or organization, but don’t always follow them. They may need disruption.
  • Beware that some traditional stalwarts – like organizational stability and hierarchy – may become impediments to growth and creativity.
  • Keeping your processes simple is difficult, but it lets you adapt better.

Summary: Three Steps Toward Adapting to Win

Success relies on adaptation. But adjusting to change or adapting your perspectives and methods isn’t enough to guarantee success. Simply surviving won’t do the job either. Adaptation requires flexibility and much more. So how do companies and people embrace adaptability? How can more people win? Look to the “science of adaptation,” along with culture and technology, to learn what moves people to adapt successfully. Change can be deliberate or not, successful or not; it may work for a group or not, and make people happier or not. Regardless of the results, purposeful adaptation follows three steps: seeing the need to adapt, figuring out how to change, and making the necessary modifications. Taking all three steps requires work, attention, and creative thinking, but the reward is that you can avoid collapse, assure the survival and thrive, perhaps even transcending your visions of what winning could mean. Follow these 17 rules to adapt:

“Play Your Own Game”

Success isn’t rigid. Winning comes in countless modes. You might need to grow – or shrink – to win, but you must personalize your success. This part of adaptability means looking beyond mere survival and coping. If you must make survival moves – such as limiting your losses – make sure you incorporate them as part of an overall strategy of adapting and winning. Minimize your “estimated time to adapt,” the time between a change in circumstances and a group or person’s adjustments to the change. Any lag in this time – due to denial, communication problems, or lack of awareness – will undermine your adaptation strategies. Watch out, because if your firm fails to adapt, your competitors may adjust and win.

“All Failure Is Failure to Adapt”

United Parcel Service (UPS) placed first in its field on Fortune’s 2011 list of most admired companies, outranking the United States Postal Service (USPS). How did UPS beat USPS? Adaptability. It doesn’t matter whether USPS’s lack of change is due to outside rules that limit its adaptation or to a 200-year-old culture that makes modernization unlikely. Failure means it isn’t adapting. Any organization that hasn’t consistently changed and updated itself should start by taking three steps: First, it should find out what changes it needs to make, figure out what prevented previous adaptations, and learn how those in the system can adjust. The people within the company already know the problems; just get out of the boardroom and go ask their opinions.

“Embrace Unacceptable Wisdom”

When the Italian government announced a cost-saving decision to merge villages with fewer than 1,000 people, most villages complied despite being unhappy with the move. But the mayor and 544 residents of Filettino saw no reason to merge. Rather than staging a typical protest, the village printed its own money and initiated an independence movement. Its residents found inspiration in the country’s past when Italy had many small principalities, and they relied on the current technology of social media to build international interest in their story. Their innovative solution worked. Rebelling against and deviating from conventional wisdom can serve you well, leading to adaptation through creating a “better problem” and more successful results.

Fool “with the Rules”

Start by knowing what the rules are, why they exist, and what wisdom and experience they contain. Then you’ll be equipped to break them or change them as you need. Even ants rely on routines for daily activities, but they still thrive when they have to break those routines. Model your organization after ants, which adapt individually when they have little time, and which can change roles and group behaviors with more time. Give everyone the power to adapt quickly to your model. Focus on staying ahead of change and problems. Small companies, in particular, must think creatively to use the rules to their advantage against big competitors.

“Stability Is a Dangerous Illusion”

UBS relied heavily on its reputation for many years. Then, in September 2011, one of its 65,000 employees lost $2.5 billion of the bank’s money. CEO Oswald Grübel initially tried to separate himself from the fraud and then resigned. After the loss, UBS finally made changes that shareholders long had requested. In response to a strong need for change, company leaders seemed to rely on the firm’s stability rather than its adaptability. If steadiness, tradition, and old practices get you into trouble, don’t trust them to get you out of it. Fear of instability won’t protect you from problems; it will promote them. Consider listening and developing empathy for all your stakeholders as you learn how to adapt and change to avoid problems.

“Stupid Survives Until Smart Succeeds”

When they must, people adapt to vast change. In 1958, at age 58, Pedro Bach-y-Rita, a Spanish language professor at New York’s City University, had a massive stroke. Doctors wrote off any chance of a significant recovery. But his son, George, a medical student, saw his dad’s potential. George took his father home and first taught him to crawl, then to play babyish games, and then to eat, walk and speak. A year later, the professor was teaching again. When Pedro died at 72 after he had a heart attack while mountain climbing, an autopsy showed that his brain hadn’t healed well after the stroke, which had destroyed 97% of the nerves linking the brain and spine. Instead, his brain adapted, finding other ways to work. His recovery, clear proof of “neural plasticity,” set a life’s research course for Pedro’s other son, Paul, a doctor who “demonstrated that parts of the brain that usually do one thing can be retrained to do something else,” and who showed that knowledge resides in every turn of events if you’re smart enough to see it.

“Learning Fast Is Better Than Failing Fast”

Learning from failure isn’t a success, but it can be valuable if it teaches you to adapt and experiment. Ideally, adaptation mixes determination with openness and an obsession with “learning by doing.” That process never stops, regardless of success or failure. Failure also is never the end. Think of Apple, the ultimate quick learner. When it fails publicly, the company recognizes reality and reacts quickly, whether that means dropping the price or making rapid fixes. It learns from and improves on failure. By fixing the item, Apple directs the energy that went into the product toward something that ultimately succeeds. Apple also ships some experimentation to outside partners, such as those who produce apps. Their missteps don’t hurt Apple as much as its own.

“Plan B Matters Most”

The National Football League’s Rooney Rule is an adaptation that’s effectively solving the problem of having too few black coaches in a league of predominantly black players. The rule requires teams to interview black candidates for coaching jobs but doesn’t restrict whom they hire. This simple process successfully brings black coaches to the fore. By 2011, the league had eight nonwhite coaches, up from two before the Rooney Rule. This intervention wasn’t automatic. It required seeing a need to adapt, finding the proper change, and making that change. It had to be simple. Complex adaptations create roadblocks and cause damage. Don’t move too fast or too slow. Having good timing matters more than being fast.

“Free Radicals”

Order and chaos conflict, but neither one outshines the other. Adapting means accommodating both those who flourish in uncertainty and those who hate it. Excess worry and strict rules scare away creative people, the very ones who spur adaptation. So appreciate the magic of free radicals and passionate, unconventional innovators. Starbucks lost its passion and stumbled in 2007, requiring founder Howard Schultz to return as CEO and to close 977 stores in a year when his immediate predecessor had planned to open 900. Schultz wrote a famous memo describing the loss of passion for the coffee experience. He closed all 7,100 US stores for an afternoon to retrain the baristas and worked to revive the culture of a welcoming home away from home. Within three years, Starbucks had rebounded; its shares soared from $8 to $30, thanks to free radical Schultz.

“Think Better Together”

In war-torn Liberia in the early 2000s, a group of women launched a sex strike and a series of nonviolent protests to end 14 years of civil unrest. Social worker Leymah Gbowee led the strike to end the killing in her country. Women used various tactics to compel dictator Charles Taylor to discuss peace. They stormed a hotel to rekindle stalled negotiations, sang in a public fish market, and otherwise “out-thought and out-adapted” Taylor. Gbowee later led “a process of peace and reconciliation” and shared a Nobel Peace Prize with her country’s first female president. The leaders of this movement thought deeply about their work and succeeded by responding creatively to big problems.

Find a Great Partner

Working with someone else helps adaptation in several ways: It improves ideas and addresses the realistic aspects of adapting by combining people with different abilities and strengths. Activision had a big hit in 2008 when it released the Nazi Zombie minigame with its popular Call of Duty game. One software developer launched the idea, found encouragement, worked on it in his spare time, and collected partners in the firm. When the first developers became worn out, others finished the game – a very effective partnership. Fans loved it, and adaptation continued long after the game’s release.

“Never Grow Up”

Naturally, businesses and other organizations mature, losing the edge that helped them startup. Professional managers may replace dreamy entrepreneurs, but they shouldn’t get old in their ideas. Bringing in new leaders who simply do what they did at their old companies dooms adaptation. For flexibility, build in some fun. Pranks can indicate creativity and enthusiasm, like Google’s famous April Fool’s Day tricks. In 2000, Google released a hoax new search tool, MentalPlex, which asked users to “send a mental image of what they wanted to find.” The fun keeps workers young, relaxed, and always adapting.

“Hierarchy Is Fossil Fuel”

Traditional hierarchy, despite its popularity and dominance as an organizational structure, will slow you down. Ranks and corporate ladders impede learning and promote self-centered attitudes and actions. As a cultural factor, the hierarchy gets in the way of adaptation.

“Keep the Ball”

Look at the University of Oregon’s football team. With creative thinking, the longtime bottom-ranked team hit the top, qualifying for 12 end-of-season championship bowl games in 14 years. That’s because leaders adapted at the core. Keeping changes simple, even if that’s difficult, lets you adapt better.

“Swerve and Swarm”

Combine these two tactics for the most powerful adaptations: Swerve by evading obvious solutions and swarm by attracting massive attention, like the Occupy Wall Street movement. Swarming lets people join together to overpower existing systems. Swerving beyond the obvious solution helps you move resources to where they need to be.

“Get Your Ambition On”

Release your previous limits and open up to adaptation by reaching out to new places and new ways of thinking. Ambition can change the world while being afraid and unwilling to make mistakes can restrict, inhibit, and harm organizations.

“Always the Beginning”

“In adaptive terms, if you are still in the game, then it’s always the beginning.” Being first is usually good, but even that doesn’t mean you are finished adapting. Avoid “adaptation fatigue” by starting again enthusiastically. Accompany your knowledge with the desire to begin working to adapt again, eagerly, persistently, and over and over.

About the Authors

Management consultant and coach Max McKeown is a popular speaker and the author of The Strategy Book, Unshrink, and The Truth About Innovation.

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