Why an Adaptive Mindset Matters for Entrepreneurs
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How can leaders develop an adaptive mindset during this ongoing crisis?
In writing his book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, author Ronald Heifetz describes adaptive leadership using the below analogy. He writes:
“We use the metaphor of ‘getting on the balcony’ above the ‘dance floor’ to depict what it means to gain the distanced perspective you need to see what is really happening.”
You’re probably thinking, right. Easier said than done.
Achieving any kind of distance from current events seems unfeasible, even silly.
Every day, we face new struggles and challenges. And yet, Heifetz’s words ring more true than ever. As the founder of JotForm, a company with over 250 employees, I can’t remain paralyzed by uncertainty, and I’m sure most leaders are feeling the same way.
Learning how to adapt is an essential skill that allows us to make good decisions and be able to address complex problems right now.
But in order to do so, we need to have that ability to zoom out of our immediate circumstances and look at things from a distanced perspective.
Why an adaptive mindset matters for entrepreneurs
“The Covid-19 pandemic is constantly evolving, with leaders facing unpredictability, imperfect information, multiple unknowns, and the need to identify responses quickly,” write co-authors Ben Ramalingam, David Nabarro, Arkebe Oqubuy, Dame Ruth Carnall, and Leni Wild in their fascinating story for Harvard Business Review.
All of this is to say that tackling these new challenges will demand flexible capacities, as the co-authors explain “Responding to the crisis requires adaptive leadership.” Or to put it more simply: we can’t think or react as we have in previous times.
The most effective leaders know how to rapidly evolve and have a sense of foresight when it comes to dealing with complex issues. Here are a few techniques I apply on a regular basis that can help you with your own organization.
1. Be both an observer and a participant
“Leadership is an improvisational art,” write Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky in their survival guide for leaders. “To use our metaphor, you have to move back and forth from the balcony to the dance floor, over and over again throughout the days, weeks, months, and years,” the co-authors explain. “While today’s plan may make sense now, tomorrow you’ll discover the unanticipated effects of today’s actions and have to adjust accordingly.”
To gain perspective, we need to stop and see what’s going on around us. Observe and listen to how things are fluctuating. If we are deeply entrenched in doing things the way they always have been done, then we’ll miss out on the chance to innovate.
2. Constantly assess your actions
Shifting to an adaptive mindset involves constantly reflecting on the work you are doing and then redirecting as needed. For example, as we continue many months into the pandemic, it’s a fact that the practical realities of your teams’ needs will also continue to evolve. Hence, it’s vital you take a proactive approach by looking ahead and paying attention to what will require some trial and error to improve.
For my company, changing the way we use communication channels is something we’ve had to consider compared to how we did things back in March. While having unstructured time to constantly ping people may have worked for us in the beginning as more of us adjusted to working from home, we soon discovered that it also hindered our productivity.
Related: Why You Need to Learn to Adapt
In continuously assessing my actions, I was able to quickly change course as the situation called for, which in this case, meant establishing firm policies when it comes to Slacks and emails.
3. Be accountable and focus on learning
During a crisis, many leaders can fall into the trap of pointing the blame at others for challenges their organization faces. But part of cultivating an adaptive mindset requires us to be accountable and relay that transparency to our team.
All of this maximizes learning, according to the Harvard Business Review co-authors. “The best adaptive leaders — from business leaders to policy makers to community organizers — have recognized mistakes are likely to be made and actively used them to identify shared learning opportunities.”
I’ll be the first to admit that over the course of adjusting to our “new normal,” I’ve certainly made mistakes; had back-and-forth debates over the best strategies for moving forward, and stumbled in other areas along the way.
But as American business executive, Jim Whitehurst explains in a separate piece for Harvard Business Review, having the confidence to own up to your mistakes is what allows for greater engagement. “Being accessible, answering questions, admitting mistakes, and saying you’re sorry aren’t liabilities. They are exactly the tools you can use to build your credibility and authority to lead.”
4. Prioritize mutual trust
So, being accountable is crucial for an adaptive mindset, but just as necessary is
having open and honest dialogues with your team about what is and isn’t working. That’s the secret ingredient for better collaboration and for identifying strategic priorities to complex problems.
According to experts, leaders who acknowledge their own fallibility create an environment of “psychological safety, and mutual trust that is vital for effective crisis response.”
Amy Edmondson, Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School defines this kind of psychological safety as “a belief that the workplace is safe for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, and even mistakes.” But more importantly, she says, “It’s a sense of confidence that your voice is valued.”
Developing an adaptive mindset then boils down to prioritizing the collective voices that make up the heart of our organization.
Because at the end of the day, the ability to zoom out of our immediate circumstances and have that distanced perspective we all dream of, comes not from trying to step away from our challenges, but from focusing in on something other than ourselves.