IT organizations today – at least the ones that are paying attention – operate under the assumption that disruption of their business is right around the corner. They work in more agile ways, getting more comfortable with failure, and experimenting often in an effort to move faster and work smarter. Along the way, one must-have skill has risen to the surface in IT: Adaptability.
Adaptability is a key component of emotional intelligence. IT leaders are now calling it a power skill, as Epsilon CIO Robert Walden recently noted. Adaptable employees see change as an opportunity rather than a threat, and they are better able to regroup when new technologies disrupt the status quo.
“We are at a point in IT where new ways of delivering services to our customers and partners is increasing rapidly. Just look at containers and how quickly they are becoming a standard,” said Robert Reeves, CTO at Datical. “You cannot predict what new technology will occur in the future, so just be ready to evaluate new tech and take advantage of the advancements that work. Frankly, equal parts skepticism and willingness to change are the keys to adaptability in IT.”
[ Why is adaptability the new power skill? Read our new report from HBR Analytic Services: Transformation Masters: The New Rules of CIO Leadership ]
If you are stalled in your career or trying to position yourself for advancement, it’s a wise time to assess your strengths in this area. Even if you are comfortable where you are, everyone should strive to be more adaptable in their lives and their careers. As Reeves notes, “Change is the only constant in life. Prepare for it, because it will happen whether you like it or not,” he says.
To gauge how adaptable you really are, ask yourself these questions:
1. Are you generally optimistic?
Adaptability can be like wearing rose-colored glasses, according to Halelly Azulay, CEO of TalentGrow and creator and host of The TalentGrow Show podcast. “Adaptable people see the possibilities with an optimistic perspective,” said Azulay. “Rigid or inflexible people tend to perceive situations as catastrophic and expect pessimistic outcomes.”
Azulay suggests: “If you immediately imagine a failure scenario when faced with a change, ask yourself, ‘what’s the worst case scenario? And could I live with that?’ Alternatively, you could ask ‘what’s the worst case scenario – and will it be deadly?’ If not, maybe the idea is worth a shot?”
2. Are you willing to see other perspectives?
Those who are rigid in their decisions and set in their ways often have strong emotional reactions to being thrown off course. But, with practice, anyone can learn to go more easily with the flow.
“Test your adaptability by being open to questions and a difference in opinion, and see how you react to those challenges,” suggests Leah Weiss, author of the book "How We Work" and a Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer. “If you are a leader at work, how open are you to a team member telling you they disagree with you or challenging your thoughts? This is a great way to see how adaptable you really are – and a great way to improve your flexibility.”
If no one is challenging your ideas or decisions, challenge yourself, suggests Azulay. “When you feel certain of your opinion or idea, ask a question to help you see multiple perspectives,” she says. Here are three questions Azulay proposes:
- What could be a different way to explain this same situation from an opposite or very different perspective or direction?
- What assumptions am I making that are potentially biasing my response?
- What else could be true that would cause me to change my mind significantly?
3. Are you able to see the big picture?
The excuse “I’ve always done it that way” is no longer good enough – even if “that way” still gets the job done most of the time. Change that impacts the organization as a whole impacts everyone within it, and those who are able to see the big picture will be in a better position to respond and adapt when opportunities arise.
“Frankly, the issue is on whether you focus on yourself or the organization,” says Reeves. “Do you seek to understand the reason for change, or do you immediately focus on yourself and how it will affect you? Are you actively seeking ways to improve your job, company, your peers’ lives or do you just focus on your day-to-day tasks? I would argue that narrow focus and rigidity shows that you lack adaptability and aren’t focused on the team or the organization.”
4. Are you comfortable with failure?
One reason to avoid change or trying something new is that you might fail. Adaptable people get comfortable with failure because it generates valuable lessons. The more you experiment – and the more you allow yourself to fail – the better you will get at iterating your way to success.
“Adaptability requires foresight,” says Sanjay Malhotra, CTO of Clearbridge Mobile. “The technology landscape is in a constant state of turbulence, and unexpected circumstances can arise at any moment. Practicing adaptability involves laying out all the ways a situation can go wrong, and more importantly creating a contingency plan for any potential problems that may arise. Foresight is what allows adaptable people to pivot quickly and still accomplish the task at hand.”
5. Are you motivated by change?
Finally, take a moment to check in with yourself emotionally the next time you confront an obstacle at work or see a major change to your role or business on the horizon. Are you nervous? Excited? Scared?
“Adaptive people tend to welcome change as a challenge that they expect they will successfully resolve,” said Azulay. “Less adaptive people tend to fear change and don’t have confidence or motivation to deal with obstacles or changes successfully.”
“Personally, I hate change in my life. When I have to deal with daylight saving time or road construction on my commute, I become discombobulated,” says Reeves. “However, in terms of my career, I love change because it makes my job interesting.”
[ Leaders, do you want to give your team a greater sense of urgency? Get our free resource: Fast Start Guide: Creating a sense of urgency, with John Kotter. ]
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Keep up with the latest advice and insights from CIOs and IT leaders.