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Adapting to change: How to master it, personally and professionally

The importance of adapting to change

Personally and professionally, change is one of the most flummoxing -- and also one of the best -- things we encounter in our lives. It can be terrifying in the moment (think of a new job, the end of a relationship, or a friend/pet passing away), but also spur you on to new heights. 

Some of the biggest, baddest tech companies out there these days were born of the 2007-2008 recession. In the USA during COVID, more new business applications were filed than at any time since early 2004.

The world rarely stands still. Knowing how to cope with the curveballs life throws at you is a crucial skill to have. Let’s have a look at why adapting to change is important, and the different ways in which you can master it.

Table of contents

Let's take a look at the statistics around adapting to change.

  • 62.71%: Of people in response to the Change Perception Index and Luck Readiness Index said they feared uncertainty in their future. [1]
  • 86.44%: Of people in the same surveys said they expected their life to be very different in five years. [2] 
  • 46%: Of CIOs indicate culture change is their biggest barrier to success. [3] 
  • 70%: Of organizational change efforts fail outright. [4]
  • 47%: In one KPMG study, 96% of companies were attempting a business transformation -- and only 47% expected it to be successful. [5]
  • 81%: Of effective change management projects come in at or under budget. [6]
  • 50%: Of organizations polled by Gartner deemed their change management process “a clear failure.” [7]
  • 65%: Of the most effective change management programs offer training before and after go-live [8]

Why is it important to adapt to change?

Dealing with change is one of the most important life skills you can have. 

In business, no matter what industry you’re in, the market never stands still. Even if you run a ‘timeless’ business - like dry cleaning or automobile servicing - your livelihood is still at the mercy of a volatile interconnected world. 

The 2020 pandemic was an incredible reminder of this. Some businesses failed, some flourished, but you’ll have to really dig if you want to find those that pretty much stayed the same. 

On a personal level, it’s just as important. Relationships come and go, opportunities open up, friendships blossom, bodies get sick, people pass away, things just keep on happening. You can’t stick your head in the sand and pretend things will stay the same forever. 

What happens if you don’t adapt to change?

Without an ability to deal with novel challenges like these, you’ll find yourself floundering in the face of unexpected situations. Rather than taking advantage of evolving scenarios you’ll miss out on opportunities for growth and learning, instead either languishing in a comfortable status quo, or being frozen in fear or denial.

In practical terms, that might mean you’re seen as a Luddite or overly conservative in the face of opportunity. Or it could mean you’re passed over for promotion in favor of someone more adaptable. Or it could simply mean you’re less at ease when something unexpected happens in life.

Whichever you choose, one thing’s for sure: the world will keep on turning whether you like it or not.

What is the ability to adapt to change?

There’s a single word that defines the ability to adapt to change: adaptability

This valuable attribute is one of the most useful skills you can have, in business and in life. It’s a word you’ll see mentioned in job listings as a desired quality in a candidate, and is almost universally mentioned as something positive. 

Note that some people don’t find adaptability to be one of their strongest skills, and that’s totally fine! In fact, some people do their best work in environments of stability, and don’t crave the novelty of new situations every day. Some workplaces really suit this and some don’t, which is part of the everlasting challenge of matching the right people to the right job. 

Adaptability is the key to success in environments that evolve frequently. 

Some people like testing their abilities to cope with new tasks, and seek them out regularly (for example: your outdoorsy friend who takes up a new sport seemingly every month). Some have this lifestyle forced upon them if they live in a chaotic home environment, where they might have drama and difficulty pop up every other day. 

Is adaptability a skill or a quality?

Your ability to adapt to change will influence your success in certain areas of life. But is it learned or is it inherent? 

We think it’s a skill - that is, something you can learn and improve at as you go through life. 

Think of it this way - are some people naturally more adaptable than others? Yes. But can anyone learn how to be more adaptable than they were before? Absolutely.

Below, we’ll go through the ways you can learn how to deal with change in different environments, and some of the challenges you might find along the way.

Why is it difficult to adapt to change?

What might get in the way of building your adaptability?  

The main roadblock is simply that adapting to change takes effort.

When a big change happens, you’ve got to expend mental energy trying to wrap your head around it. You’ve got to understand what it means for you, your family, your coworkers, and so on. You’ve got to weigh up the different costs and outcomes of potential approaches. And often you’re doing this on incomplete information - you might only see the change through the lens of a news report, or a rumor, or from someone with a particularly biased viewpoint. 

Another reason is that we’re creatures of habit, and if you’ve made it through life so far doing things one way, it’s hard to switch to another. Your approach to changing environments might be deeply embedded in your psyche, and stopping yourself from reacting your usual way (e.g. with fear or denial) can take a fair bit of self-control.

But while psychology can reveal the behavioral tendencies we build up through life, brains can change and new neural pathways can be forged - just look at the fascinating science of neuroplasticity.

Practicing decisiveness during times like these isn’t easy for anyone, and it does require you to have a certain amount of trust in yourself. Luckily, with practice, you can become quicker and more agile with making decisions, and won’t feel the paralyzing sense of fear that you once did when faced with multiple possibilities of action.

Adapting to change in times of COVID

Ah, yes: COVID-19. It’s been a huge force in the lives of millions (billions?) across 2020-2021, and made adapting to change a much bigger topic. Companies pivoted their entire working process in less than two weeks back in March 2020, and many plan to continue that through 2021 and beyond. 

Day-to-day contexts around commuting, childcare, source of income, and dozens of other factors changed drastically. There’s virtually no one on the planet who didn’t feel some context around adapting to change in the last year or so. 

Personally adapting to change is different than organizationally adapting to change, as some of the statistics above bear out. We’re going to address each one, then come back to some of Fingerprint for Success’ ideas about change as well. 

How to adapt to change on a personal level

Nick Tasler, a keynote speaker, wrote an article in Harvard Business Review in 2017 about adapting to change personally and professionally. This part stands out:

Change is hard in the same way that it’s hard to finish a marathon. Yes, it requires significant effort. But the fact that it requires effort doesn’t negate the fact that most people who commit to a change initiative will eventually succeed. This point has gone largely unnoticed by an entire generation of experts and laypeople alike. I am just as guilty of this omission as everyone else. But now that we know the truth, don’t we have a duty to act on it?  Isn’t it time to change the way we talk about change?

In other words, we confuse the fact that change requires effort with the myth that success is unlikely. While preparing for a marathon requires effort, many people who set out to run a marathon still end up doing it. While getting a new job requires effort, and can feel like it takes forever as it’s happening, most people do end up with new jobs. A high amount of effort, as is required for change or anything worthwhile, does not mean success is unlikely.

In that way, you can personally adapt to change by stopping with the assumption that change is hard. Change is simply an inevitable part of your life. It helps to have cornerstone beliefs and cornerstone friends and family members to ground you during periods of especially-drastic change, but one of the major strategies for adapting to change personally is simply realizing that you can’t avoid it, and understanding that you will get through it. 

Consider: the majority of people who get divorced go on to marry again, and often in under four years. If you’ve experienced divorce, you know it feels like everything is over in the moment. But most people go on and change their lives.

How do you adapt to change in the workplace?

Adapting to change in the workplace can be easier said than done. 

There’s a few different scenarios where you might need to do it. It could be moving to a new office, getting used to a new process, or being moved to a different team. You might experience change on a large scale - affecting the whole company - or on a smaller one, where your own role and relationships are being altered. 

So there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, because each situation is different. That said, there is general guidance that works for those in leadership positions and those that want to guide change on a bigger, company-wide scale. 

How do leaders adapt to change?

If you’re in a leadership position, you’ll have to deal with change as well as lead others through it. There are some key behaviors to remember in this situation to make sure everyone gets through it in one piece.

  • Swallow your pride. While you’re seen as an authority figure, you’re still human, and if you need a little time to adjust to a new environment or process, that’s fine. Trying to put on a brave face at all times can actually come over as insincere, so allow yourself some vulnerability.
  • Lead by example. Rather than “do as I say, not what I do”, your leadership philosophy should show your capability and willingness to get through change, instead of just dictating how others should deal with it.
  • Understand your team’s preferences for dealing with change. There are different personalities and tendencies that affect how team members experience change, which means you might need to adjust your approach. (See the below 3 factors for more on this.)
  • Take feedback and listen to your people. While decisive action is important, you have to make sure it’s working for everyone. Whether through informal questioning or an organized feedback system, make sure you listen to people’s concerns about how the change is being managed.

How to adapt to change organizationally

This is much more complicated, because it involves multiple people -- sometimes multiple thousands of people -- having to change simultaneously. 

You may have seen this graphic at some point in your career:

 It’s a succinct breakdown of what needs to happen for change management to work organizationally. In short:

  • Vision (leadership)
  • Skills (talent base)
  • Incentives (what’s good about the change state)
  • Resources (tech, funding, processes)
  • Action plan (how it all ties together)

If you strip out any one of the five, you create the corresponding problems above. No vision? Confusion at the execution level. A team without the right skills? Anxiety. So on and so forth. 

Wharton (UPenn) had some research in 2016 about “network revolutions” in the context of adapting to change. They viewed all companies as falling into one of four buckets:

  • Asset builders: delivering value through the use of physical goods
  • Service providers: delivering value through skilled people
  • Technology creators: delivering value through ideas
  • Network orchestrators: delivering value through relationships

Exxon or Boeing might be an “asset-builder,” whereas some of the tech unicorns we discuss might be “network orchestrators.”

If you look at various returns from the four types of companies, a pattern emerges:

And even when executives can see these results and the need to adapt and change into a “network”-style company, they are still not sure exactly what to do. As Wharton explains:

When we share this research with executives and board members, most intuitively understand the implications for their organizations. The common refrain, however, is: “How can my team and I make use of this information and become a networked organization using today’s digital platforms, since our organization didn’t start out as a network?”

Even when the data is right in front of you, the process of adapting to change organizationally is incredibly challenging and very few even know where to start. 

What’s the best approach, then?

The 3 key factors that influence how someone adapts to change:

Using 20+ years of experience, research, modeling it with clients, and adding to it based on observations and data, we’ve identified three key factors that influence a person’s individual process for adapting to change.

Feeling comfortable adapting to change stems from these three primary motivations:

Every organization consists of all different types of individuals with different motivations behind their work and personality. 

Sameness (or status quo bias):

Those with a status quo bias (“Sameness” above) value routine, consistency and stability over disruptive idealism and constant change. They’re happy to assimilate new information with what they already know to make future plans. 

People with a high preference for sameness are not the best-suited for constant, rapid change as they can find it very distressing…but they can be successful change agents within an organization if provided the right context for what and why change is necessary. 

Evolution (or incremental change):

Those preferring incremental change are somewhat similar. They like taking something that exists and innovating with it, rather than making sweeping, radical changes or creating entirely new ideas all the time. 

Individuals who prefer small gradual changes can embrace adapting to change, but they see it as a process that plays out over time -- they’re not expecting a full business model or tech stack pivot within three months. It needs to be gradual, contextual, and logical.

Difference (or pioneering):

Pioneers, on the other hand, like approaching problems from scratch or figuring out new pathways to a solution. Disrupting the status quo is as attractive as creating an entirely new one.

These are who we often frame up when we think of conventional “innovation.” They make big bets and sometimes win, but it can be viewed internally as “change for the sake of change” or a highly-unpredictable environment. These folks are going to be the most comfortable people on your team when adapting to change, especially if the changes are quick and align with their other motivational traits.

Understanding your team's different styles of adapting to change

You need to understand the composition of your team so that you understand where “latitudes of acceptance” lie. Essentially, that means how far an employee can be pulled towards a different approach to change -- can a pioneer decrease his/her intensity on some projects, or can someone with a status quo bias ramp up their intensity for the good of a project? 

Understanding how your people prefer adapting to change gives you insight into strategies and approaches for managing that change.

Final takeaways on adapting to change

Now, like all things in the early 2020s, we must return to COVID for a second. The pandemic is seen as a force of change, but really what it did was accelerated trends that were already emerging, be those in shopping, China’s economy, virtual reality, work from home (and corresponding anxiety), and more. Regardless of what you do or how your company has specifically dealt with COVID, this has been a massive period of adapting to change -- and the following years will be as well. 

The best approach individually and organizationally is to understand your particular relationship with change: 

  • How comfortable does it make you? 
  • Can you intuitively see the other side quickly? 
  • Do you prefer incremental adjustments or sweeping changes, i.e. “ripping off the Band-Aid?” 

If you have an understanding of your specific context for change (and tolerance for it), you can become better at adapting to change. The same works organizationally. Know your people and know their change appetites, and the process of change management becomes easier for all involved

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