The Importance of Adaptability
A Changing World Requires a Changing Mindset
We love Yellowstone National Park. We go there every year and always find something new.
While the goal is always to see a bear, it’s always welcome when we get a few glimpses of other animals, like wolves (very rare) or coyotes (less rare).
The coyote is a particularly interesting animal. Some call it one of the most adaptable animals, especially as humans have changed the environment so much. Coyotes have changed their behavior and can even change their litter sizes to adapt:
They can pretty much make a living anywhere: grasslands, forests, mountains, deserts and even within the boundaries of major cities.
As far as their ability to adapt and thrive as a species, they have one trait that kind of trumps everything else: Their litter size will change based off of the number of coyotes living in their area. If their area is overpopulated, litter size will decrease…but if coyote numbers are low, they’ll give birth to large litters of puppies. They have the ability to single-handedly manage their population.
Adaptability is the ability to respond effectively to the unexpected, learn quickly, and to apply that knowledge across many changing situations. It’s more active than “being flexible.” It’s about developing the skills to handle many scenarios and situations.
Adaptability has always been among my top traits for career success, whether for product managers and developers, or for anyone working in technology and beyond.
In nature, there are a variety of adaptations that organisms use to respond to changes. Some of these result from evolution over longer periods of time. But they are useful in thinking about our own adaptability, even on a shorter timescale:
Structural (Physical) Adaptability
In nature, this is the ability for a plant or animal to change its own characteristics or features to better adapt to an environment. Like a bird developing a long beak.
For us, we don’t necessarily need to change our own physical characteristics to adapt. But we can create other structural or physical adaptations, for us, for our teams, or for our companies. We can change and adapt the environments we work in to the processes that we follow.
Behavioral (Emotional) Adaptability
In nature, behavioral adaptations are (unsurprisingly) about behavior and interactions. For animals, this can mean how they act or react in different situations. Like pack animals who hunt or live together for better odds of survival.
For us, we can take a cue from nature and understand the need to adapt our behavior to different situations and to different groups. Working with the VPs may differ from working with the Directors. And each person we interact with will be different. So we need to understand this and be able to adapt our behavioral and emotional responses.
Physiological (Mental) Adaptability
Physiological adaptations are internal changes in animals to better adapt to an environment. Certain animals may develop a better sense of smell or better ways of problem-solving.
While we don’t have thousands of years to rely on evolution to help us develop a better sense of smell, we can develop our internal/mental adaptability. We can expand our understanding and mental models to approach a variety of situations in new ways.
As we’ve seen in the past few years, the world can shift rapidly. A global pandemic can shut down many facets of life we never thought possible. New technology, such as AI, can render processes and even jobs obsolete. Who knows what will come next?
So what can we do?
We shouldn’t be passive about our adaptability. The world is changing faster than ever, and the rate of change is increasing.
To become more adaptable, we need to explore widely. It is too easy to focus very narrowly on an area of expertise and forget to broaden our thinking and exploration. While this may be helpful initially, especially in very specialized areas, it also leads to limited opportunities and a narrow field of vision.
I once had a colleague who was exceptionally good at their role and became incredibly specialized. They became the go-to person for their area. But they focused narrowly. After a few years, as the company changed and my colleague began looking for other opportunities internally and externally, there were very few opportunities and they became stuck.
As one of my favorite books, Range, states,
“In the wicked world, with ill-defined challenges and few rigid rules, range can be a life hack.”
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