We are nearly overwhelmed by changea new
administration in Washington, an economy still on a downhill
slide, and a rocky, war-torn global landscape. As the tempo of
unpredictability quickens, many of us in the public sector find
ourselves buffeted by declines in tax revenue, uncertainty about
the real impact of the stimulus package, and programs that lack
funding. In the midst of political and economic upheaval, we learn
again what we knew already: organizational effectiveness requires
the art and practice of adaptability. Why? Because only leaders who
are adaptable can deal with these unanticipated changes, change
themselves, work with teams that function under a different
paradigm, and lead their entire organization on a trajectory that
aligns with new goals and objectives. This article examines ways we
as leaders can keep the caravan moving. In particular, it looks at
adaptability as critical in the change process.
Future-focused conversations should become the watchword of
adaptable leaders. They stimulate leaders and their followers to
look at change in new waysto see it and their part in it as a
positive experience. This article shows how to incorporate the
tactics of future-focused conversation into meetings because those
imbedded in the past tend not to move. We look at the kinds of
questions that help teams and informal groups use such
conversations. Finally, we look at what happens if we succeed.
Addressing Resistance to Change
The comfort/discomfort matrix (Figure 1) is a visual model of what
we experience during times of change. Change is difficult because
people want to stay in the comfort zone and resist anything that
moves them. Due to the current economic conditions, many are
dealing with imposed changes such as budget and staff reductions.
They feel the effects throughout their organization as less safety
and security moves them to discomfort. They become less flexible
and adaptable, and they start to demonstrate behaviors
counterproductive to achieving involvement and results.
Stress manifests itself in many formsknots in the stomach, an
increased heart rate, headaches, and sweating, to name a few.
Employees start to use their personal leave, call in sick, show up
late, or leave early. Negative energy thrives through gossip,
extended breaks, wasting time on the job, and making up stories
about the goings-on in the organization. People want to hold onto
what they know and are reluctant to accept change. Emotions peak
and the body releases stress hormonescortisol and adrenalinewhich
give us the edge that keeps us sharp when challenged and allows us
to handle the stress induced by change. It helps us focus and reach
our most productive state. This healthy level of stress hormones
triggers alertness and high productivity.
People in the midst of change commonly experience elevated stress
levels day to day, yet they are expected to function productively
in their organizations. The stress hormones are cumulative and
remain in the body for extended periods. They must be
constructively depleted for people to remain functional and
adaptable to change. Decompressing stress and using emotional
energy in a positive way allows much more open and adaptive efforts
to take over. As Donald Klein and Michael Broom write, When our
intellectual energy is not conflicted and used to focus emotional
energy into passion, we will put ourselves into very powerful
Every individual and organization struggle with change. If you have
been in a situation where top leadership makes changes not entirely
accepted (or understood) by members of staff, you know how easy it
is to be resistant because you have experienced it. You dont want
to accept a change initiative out of hand,let alone move forward,
because you feelsomething in your guta belief that the change is
threatening in some way. Changing your culture feels like a move
for which there is perilously little preparation and less
understanding among your well-intentioned colleagues.
There is a proven approach leaders can take. Consider becoming more
adaptable in your leadership style to actively shift the culture of
your organization to respond in difficult times. As a leader, you
can begin by modeling adaptability to intentionally embrace change.
Adaptability is having the ability and skills to engage in
change or to be willing to be changed to fit altered circumstances,
whether as individuals, teams, or organizations. It is a conscious
state of readiness to be able to perform and to facilitate the
accomplishment of the goal envisioned.
Fostering a Culture of Self-Awareness
When leaders are adaptable day to day, they foster a culture that
encourages self-awareness. They rethink leadership to help others
perform in a more expansive way. Being expansive is moving away
from self-limiting behaviors and narrow paradigms. In his best
selling book, The World Is Flat: A
Brief History of the Twenty-First Century,
Thomas L. Friedman addresses the importance of adaptability for
staying competitive on a level global playing field. Being
adaptable in a flat world, knowing how to learn how to learn, will
be one of the most important assets any worker can have. Learning
to learn is departing from being the expert to becoming a beginner
again. It means moving yourself out of the comfortable center of
your universe to a much more open state of curiosity.
A leader in one department of a large federal agency wanted to
change his and his teams style of leadership to better align with
current thinkingthat is, from command and control to collaborative
and inquiry based. In the process of working with fifteen of his
direct reports, he observed that ten were open to a new style; of
the ten, seven had genuinely bought into the new approach, and five
of the fifteen said, No way, I like running my part of the
organization as I have always run it. The seven succeeded in
influencing the entire department, creating a forward-focused
possibility orientation. They did it not by streamlining their
work, but by giving voice to their ideas, sharing their passion and
commitment, and being enthusiastic in conversations. They are being
heard, their ideas are being implemented, and the Big Seven have
won for themselves and their department a genuine sense of
contribution. As John Wolfgang Von Goethe observes, Every man has
enough power left to carry out that of which he is convinced.
Knowing where you want to go, followed closely by determination and
persistence to get there, is the first step toward becoming
personally adaptable and making the transition from present to
How Future-Based Conversations Invite Adaptability
The most basic method we have for influencing others is our
conversations. The way we communicate and how we position our
conversations has the potential to enlarge or limit our influence
on the people within our organization. Our conversations have
structure and are time-linked to the past, present, and future
(Figure 2). The leaders of agencies who are skilled in creating
possibility in their conversations will continue to position
themselves for the future.
Leaders can use conversations to shift the focus from what isnt
working to what could be possible. The key is to raise awareness.
How do we do this? Future-focused conversations provide forums;
they offer methods to energize workers and teams to achieve an
exciting goal. They enable them to see the way in which their work
aligns with the new possibilities emerging within the organization,
and to see how these possibilities align with the organizations
strategic goals. When the goal and their role in achieving it
connect, they viscerally wantto be a
part of it and to contribute their creative thoughts, talents,
skills, and heightened passion to achieve it.
Simply by shifting the focus of our conversations, we help our
employees raise their level of thinking and realign their energy to
consider what if? As leaders, we can guide the conversations within
our organizations to engage people to expand their ideas, offer
suggestions that will be taken seriously, and join the movement to
achieve on the basis of their belief that employees time and effort
will pay off. Future-based conversations accept that on some level,
everyone in the workplace is interested to know the answer to Whats
in it for me? The difference is that future-based conversations
link personal gain with organizational gain.
Structure of Conversations
Conversations can be the driving force behind positive change and
growth. They move people and organizations into the future. In his
book, Leadership and the Art of Conversation, Kim Krisco cites his
research on the structure of conversations in organizations. The
results demonstrate that 80 percent of conversations he studied
focused on the past, 15 percent focused on the present, and 5
percent focused on the future. They also illustrate that leaders
who want employees to take action in the present must link what
employees are doing now to the future possibilities that will
emerge as a result.
Im not asking leaders to completely disregard the past.
Organizational experience provides context: it shows what we have
done and what we know, it catalogues our successes and our
failures, and it lets us know what we need to do. The historical
past provides a benchmark and way to create new best practices in
the present. As leaders, we must learn from the past but not dwell
in it (Table 1).
Visualizing Future Possibilities
The blend of conversations that should focus on the future or
present is determined by what we observeis getting accomplished or needsto get accomplished. Examples of questions
that lead to possibilityare as
If we had unlimited resources, where would
you like to see us take our agency or the organization in three
What would it take for us to win a top
award in the government?
What can we do to expand our products and
services to reach a broader audience?
What will our organization be known for in
Recently, I spoke with a leader of a financial information
organization, who faced mounting competitive threats. He engaged
his staff in visualizing future possibilities for the organizations
products. By encouraging employees to become stakeholders in the
future and asking them to imagine possibilities for the
organization, hundreds of new ideas emerged. Many of these ideas
were implemented, and the reaction from customers was
These conversations were hardly a pothole-free road to change.
Along the way, some employees resisted. However, the leaders belief
in what was possible for the organization, coupled with his steady
reinforcement to help keep the conversation in the future, eclipsed
this resistance. Implementing the new initiatives became contagious
and proved hugely reenergizing for the entire organization.
In Decoding Resistance to Change, Jeffrey D. Ford and Laurie W.
Ford write that resistance to change initiatives is a form of
feedback, often provided by people who know more about the
day-to-day operations than leaders do. Leaders, please listen. This
is an opportunity for you to enter into conversations that focus on
where people are in the continuum of changefrom resisting change to
accepting change. When leaders address people where they are and
take the time to adequately address their concerns, they give them
the ability to internalize the change process and to gain
familiarity and comfort in understanding, accepting, and supporting
it. Resistance is data that turn into a vibrant conversation that
gives change efforts a higher profile at everylevel of the organization, not just the
directorlevel. If you dismiss resistance, youjeopardize important
relationships.If you embrace resistance and operate with an
understanding that it is a natural partner to change, you can use
it as an indicator and resource to find your way to a better, more
Moving the Conversation Forward
I was part of an organization that was very solid in every way but
one: innovation was lacking. The staff did not feel valued for what
they couldaccomplish and rarely sought to move outside
established parameters. When I moved to a new position in a
different organization, I felt as though I was newly alive to be
myself in a very different environment. When you are leading a
group on the cutting edge of progress and possibility, its like
guiding a team of Clydesdales. Hold the reins and look out. Feel
the energy, possibility, and drive. Then ask, How do I schedule and
use their talents? How do I guide this energy? Dealing with staff
morale is not the issue. Dealing with passion is.
The leader has to move from oneon- one future-focused conversations
to group-based decision-making, as often required in meetings. When
in meetings with colleagues and direct reports, begin to identify
and tally where the conversations focus:
On a piece of paper, create three boxes
labeled past, present, and future.
Record a hash mark in the appropriate boxes
where the conversations focus during the meeting.
When you see the trend is toward the past,
offer a question that redirects the conversation to the future.
Observe what happens to the group dynamics
when you begin to shift the conversation to create possibility.
Record the action items that develop as a
result of the conversation. Communicate back to the group your
Notice the shift in energy in the group and
how much movement results from the conversations. New ideas begin
As Proust observed, The real act of
discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new
eyes. When we study our organiza Intertions and the roles we play,
we often gloss over what has become commonplace or the perceived
norm. We tend to revert back to the past and miss the opportunity
to create something new and innovative.
The successful handling of change is a critical component in
creating an adaptive culture. Leaders who effectively introduce
change and reduce levels of stress create conditions for sustained
growth and adaptability.
As we note earlier in this article, change is often associated with
discomfort. When change forces people out of familiar ways of
operating, they can experience stress. Research has demonstrated
that it shows up in many ways within the organization and takes a
great toll on the individual. Thus, whatever individual
conversations and team-based change efforts may be taking place,
there is an underside to the change process. People who are in the
midst of change need support to understand the stress that arises
from the transition, lest it have a negative impact on the change
initiative and create resistance within the organization. Stress
tends to increase peoples focus on inflexibility and resistance to
new initiatives and reorganization.
What Happens if We Succeed?
The Zanders, authors ofThe Art of
Possibility, talk about smiling eyes. Its
the energy people communicate when they are going beyond where they
thought they could go. Its the place of achievement beyond the
bounds of their prior known world to something exciting individuals
live into. When people see future possibilities happening, they
offer their discretionary energy toward achieving the desired
outcomes, which drives energy and excitement in the organization.
During times of change and transition, leaders can add value and
lessen the effects of stress and discomfort by creating an
environment of safety and security by practicing some of these
Training to build the skill required to
support initiatives, new processes, or programs
Communicating organizational changes in the
early stages, the known and unknown, often and consistently,
reducing the rumors and gossip and limiting negative energy in the
Sharing the vision of the outcomes and how
they will benefit the organization, helping each person understand
Keeping peoples focus and attention on the
possibility in their future and making a constant effort to
redirect their focus from their old identity to create a new one.
Change requires a departure from our old identities. Our old
thinking of our organization, our role, and our jobs no longer
applies. Breaking the identity of the past requires an adaptive
culture to support the development of a new identity.
Avail yourself of the best sources of information, insights, and
experience to add value and influence the situation with a positive
result. Youll increase your ability to adapt to changes at every
level (Table 2). Begin to access subject matter experts for their
knowledge and experience. Turn to professional organizations,
mentors, self-help books, colleagues, topic-specific networks, the
Internet , and any resource that will give you the answers you need
to make good decisions and gain confidence in your actions.
The more you use these resources, the more comprehensive your
approach will be. Preparing your solutions and strategies broadens
yourability to adapt to changes and create possibility. A broad
range of resources leads to options to expand the scope of your
support system. The more opportunities you create, the easier it is
to change the current reality within your organization.