Digital transformation: How to empower your most adaptable people

Do you know who your adaptivists are? Discovering and nurturing this important group of leaders can help propel your change efforts forward, faster
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At its core, digital transformation is about the need to modernize. It’s about disrupting, changing, and responding to the competition. It's the people on our teams who actually propel us toward our goals and lead us through this transformation. It’s up to us as leaders to identify a particular subset of individuals who are capable of working in an agile manner while accelerating the business.

I call them adaptivists. This probably isn’t the first time this term has been used, but it is a perfect descriptor of what is needed in organizations today.

[ Get answers to key digital transformation questions and lessons from top CIOs: Digital transformation cheat sheet. ]

The important role adaptivists play in digital transformation

Adaptivists are capable of playing across verticals. They see the big picture and can move seamlessly from one area of the business to another while translating challenges, ideas, and plans along the way. They might, for example, engage and bring together stakeholders from various technical disciplines who were not originally involved in a project or issue.

The adaptivist’s ability to see around corners and play out future moves in the chess game enables them to plug holes before they become an issue. In some cases, the adaptivists themselves may actually play a hands-on role implementing or troubleshooting a technology. They not only see the potential pitfalls that may exist, they also actively engage in mitigating or solving them.  

They not only see the potential pitfalls that may exist, but also actively engage in mitigating or solving them. 

Because the speed of change isn’t slowing, we can no longer stop, analyze, and deliberate about a strategy when we’re thrown a curveball. We need to react with flexibility and tackle problems after just a little thoughtful deliberation. We don’t have the luxury of long, drawn-out processes of strategic evaluation – we need to start moving quickly.

Adaptivists – who excel at adaptability and flexibility – help us do that. They solve problems a piece at a time. Their flexibility and adaptability lead to agility and incremental progress toward a goal – not with perfection in mind, but by moving the needle every day.

[ Is your digital strategy up to date? Read also: 8 digital transformation trends for 2020. ]

How to identify your adaptivists

At Draper, my job isn’t about technology – it’s about people. I’m fortunate to know the majority of people in my organization – their strengths, weaknesses, and their goals. This helps me identify talent with the change agent attitudes and the potential to be adaptivists. Not every leader is in this position; in larger organizations, you need to empower your direct reports to seek them out.

To do this, first you need to identify them based on the qualities noted above and understand how to keep them engaged. Adaptivists love to accept challenges. They’re technically adept and consider change a challenge to help motivate others and drive forward — that’s the attitude that sets them apart. You can find these people within your organization, but sometimes you may need to bring them in. 

Once you’ve identified folks with these qualities, you need to give them opportunities to grow, test, and challenge their skills.

Once you’ve identified folks with these qualities, you need to give them opportunities to grow, test, and challenge their skills. This might mean giving them a stretch role or creating a new group for them outside of their daily work. You need to also let them know it’s OK to fail – fail fast and learn from the situation. As humans we are not perfect and should not expect perfection from our staff members, especially those who are willing to be put into roles that may be unique, challenging and quite honestly uncomfortable. 

Adaptivists can move your IT org forward, faster

Discovering and cultivating adaptivists has positively impacted our business. At Draper, we have seen this in some of our compliance projects where we 've needed to implement technical controls in a very short timeframe. Often the adaptivists will spearhead the technical direction and help to push the team to address daunting challenges.

As a result, I find our department being brought into more discussions on a broader range of topics because we have come up with creative solutions and have met tight, demanding deadlines.

As we move forward with digital transformation, adaptivists will continue to play an important role. They’re the ones constantly moving us forward, pushing us to adapt, and encouraging flexibility and adaptability as we chase the pace of change.

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Mike joined Draper as the Chief Information Officer in September 2015 to enable and support an overall corporate transformation. In his role as CIO, he strategically addressed the people, process and technology aspects of IT as it related to the overall corporate vision for change and innovation.