Critical Leadership Skills Series: Adaptability

March, 2024

Join Unstoppable co-founders Vikram Maraj and Kevin Gangel to explore this set of four critical leadership skills that unlock unlimited potential in people and organizations. 

In a world of nonstop change and perpetual polycrises, a state change in leadership is needed now more than ever — yet organizations today reveal a stunning lack of leadership, with just 11% of surveyed organizations reporting “robust leadership.” This vacuum offers a massive opportunity to those willing to look inward and re-examine their ingrained thought and behavior patterns. 

For innovative solutions to build the world of the future, leaders must do the work — first for themselves and then for their organizations — to develop new mindsets. Most leadership training fails because they consider only the day-to-day challenges organizations and individuals face without ever addressing the underlying mechanisms that impede true change. 

Through decades of work with organizations of every type and size, Unstoppable has identified a handful of critical leadership skills that foster cultures of unlimited potential. Four of them are: authenticity, responsibility, courage, and adaptability.

In our four-part series on Empowerment, Unstoppable co-founders Vikram Maraj and Kevin Gangel deep-dive into each of these skills. In this article, they focus on the corporate obsession with adaptability and reveal a more powerful alternative. Read on to explore Kevin and Vikram’s insights on adaptability, and how it can transform organizations and unlock quantum leaps of success and fulfillment. 

Unstoppable Conversations: Describe the conventional notion of adaptability — what does the corporate world mean when they use this word, and how is Unstoppable’s notion of it different? 

Kevin Gangel: They mean, “Roll with the punches.” “Necessity is the mother of invention.” “Stay frosty.” “Adapt and survive.” Wisdom or corporate platitudes?

Here’s what doesn’t work about adaptation: incremental modification. Why? The modern world is not changing incrementally. Of course, we want to be steadfast around our most deeply held values amid chaos and change. But more often what we need to develop are the skills to identify old patterns, “stuck” ways of being and acting, and worn-out mental models — and get good at retiring them. It’s only by letting go (of comfort, the past, the known, the expected) that we can truly adapt. 

Vikram Maraj: The new word for adaptability in the corporate world is “pivot.” Same concept, different name. By any name, the conventional definition means taking everything we already know and making a directional shift in strategy. We adapt to supply chain shortages by finding new suppliers. We adapt to failing profits by downsizing. We adapt to economic pressures by doing more with less or increasing our margin…whatever. It’s all about using our previous experiences to solve the latest challenge. This is “adaptation” for the corporate world.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, most adaptation is recycling what we’ve done in the past to avert the crisis. Rarely does adaptability result in fundamental changes to our philosophy and our DNA. If it does, it’s no longer adaptability, it’s Breakthrough Thinking.

KG: In biology, adaptation takes millennia of slow shaping by the environment. In leadership, we don’t have time for that. We have to leapfrog the skills we’ll need tomorrow and jump into the future. It’s about looking out to see who you need to be a year from now and adapting to that. Done right, adaptation is a game not of changing what didn’t work yesterday, but of transporting yourself into the future and asking, “How do I BE that right now?”

It’s only by letting go (of comfort, the past, the known, the expected) that we can truly adapt. 

– Kevin Gangel, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

UC: Adaptability is often named as an essential skill for any organization looking to navigate complexity. Unstoppable clearly has a different view. What is it? 

KG: First, let’s differentiate complex from complicated. Rube Goldberg machines (better mousetraps) are complicated — there’s a lot going on but everything is connected. You can follow the lines of cause and effect, even if some of the connections are outrageous. 

When something is complex, the relationships are not clear. What is causing what is far from obvious. Complexity, by its nature, requires exploration, risk, hypothesis, testing, failing, and (dare I say) adaptation to what you are discovering as you discover it. 

Nearly every challenge leaders face today is complex. The default context for business is to standardize, optimize, predict, and then squeeze everything into a status quo. This is great for managing assembly lines, but it’s not a smart approach for groups of human beings facing unpredictable situations. When we try to bring “standardization” and “best practices” to complexity, we’re bringing the wrong tools for the job.  

VM: Sure, conventional “adaptability” is essential to navigate a certain level of change in the market or the environment. But that kind of adaptability is reactive, not proactive. 

Breakthrough Thinking, on the other hand, is a proactive process in which humans deal with complex situations by developing the capacity to create new ideas and solutions. When IBM became a solutions provider instead of staying a machines manufacturer, that was Breakthough Thinking. When Uber democratized how drivers and clients find each other, that was Breakthrough Thinking. What appears complex and overwhelming becomes dead simple when you think about it the right way. But to do this requires one of the most difficult things of all — to let go of your current approach to business.

“Breakthrough Thinking is a proactive process in which humans deal with complex situations by developing the capacity to create new ideas and solutions.”

— Vikram Maraj, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations 

UC: What are the stumbling blocks to breakthrough thinking? How do you overcome them? 

KG: Attachment is the biggest stumbling block to breakthrough thinking. Our brains love what we know. It lets us feel safe and allows our brains to relax without doing the work of observing something new. We are attached to our past experiences, our expectations, our stories about other people and how they are predictable, “how it went yesterday.” 

The first step to overcoming attachment comes from allowing yourself to discover what you’re missing because of that attachment. Consider change blindness, a phenomenon where people don’t notice major visual changes that happen right in front of them. When we let our brains tell us that we are seeing what we expect, we don’t see what’s actually there. 

What is the impact of being attached? You miss what’s happening around you — what people actually say, what they actually mean, how they actually feel, and what they are actually telling you. You miss what’s changing. AND you miss trends, signposts, and clues about what the future holds. Stare that impact in the face and you’ll suddenly realize that breakthrough thinking becomes a significant competitive advantage.

VM: The main barrier to breakthrough thinking is a deep attachment to the belief that “what got us here will get us there.” In other words, organizations are trapped in their traditional systems of thinking, which filter out new ideas, challenges to the status quo, and even hard data that contradicts those systems. 

The only way through this inertia is for leaders to have ruthlessly honest conversations to name their system of thinking. When one of our clients, lululemon, got that their old system of thinking was to define themselves as “a place to buy stuff,” the possibility of being a “community hub” was born. This shift in the in-store experience transformed their bottom line.

The main barrier to breakthrough thinking is a deep attachment to the belief that “what got us here will get us there.”

— Vikram Maraj, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations 

UC: Please share an example of how you’ve seen adaptability affect a person or company. 

KG: Leaders who adapt effectively usually do so by discovering something they’ve been missing, something that was already there that they couldn’t see or put their finger on. When something that is right there suddenly becomes visible, a whole new opportunity set shows up and we naturally “adapt” to what is now obviously needed. 

A great example is a multi-generational family-owned company we worked with. This company had operations across western Canada, multiple types of businesses, a long history of financial success, and a well-loved brand. With a group of successful top executives nearing the end of their careers and no succession plan, the company was grappling with a variety of issues including embedded cultural legacies, outdated systems, challenges implementing new systems, and a misalignment between management and owners.

In our work together, they discovered a deep-seated way of thinking that had been the initial success of the company 2.5 generations prior. Throughout the company, innovation and strategic planning had been driven by a shared approach based on gut instinct, affectionately called, “have a hunch, buy a bunch.” Because company leadership had historically had good instincts, and the wins produced with this method were usually greater than the losses (but with plenty of both!), they had never really dealt with what didn’t work about that intuitive and now taken-for-granted approach to business, which had become baked into the culture. But amid shifting demographics, changing technology, and generational changes among customers and their behaviors, they were finding that the gut instinct was no longer reliable.

In response, they created an entirely new “reason for the existence” of the organization and rolled it out publicly. They created new ways to measure the success and failure of inventory systems, CRMs, sales processes, and customer experience. And most importantly, they crushed their succession plan to the extent that everyone who should be on the golf course is happily on the golf course without being worried about the next generation, and leadership has expanded everywhere in the company.

Leaders who adapt effectively usually do so by discovering something they’ve been missing. When something that is right there suddenly becomes visible, a whole new opportunity set shows up and we naturally “adapt” to what is now obviously needed.

Kevin Gangel, Co-founder, Unstoppable Conversations

VM: Our work with lululemon started with their need to adapt to a shifting market and Amazon’s rising ecommerce dominance. We began with the reactive need to adapt to this beast of a threat. However, through Unstoppable’s method, we caused a breakthrough in thinking that went past what the executives already knew to do, their decades of past experiences, and their attachment to what made them successful. 

Instead of trying to compete with the cheaper cheaper, faster faster Amazon model, we created a “Community Hub” concept that lululemon still uses to this day. It has revolutionized how they show up in the world and built even higher brand loyalty. It is not an adaptation. It is a breakthrough in thinking through which they invented an entirely new way for a retail store to connect to the community it serves.

Vik Maraj is a co-founder of Unstoppable and serves as Head of Design and Delivery.

Kevin Gangel is a co-founder of Unstoppable and serves as CEO.

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