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Adaptability is critical to survival. Luckily, it can be learned

In college, when I first really studied the impact of the Industrial Revolution (on art, war, politics, sociology—and later psychology), I never imagined a 4th industrial revolution—but here we are. As IoT and smart-everything defines this next great wave, Forbes joins a host of other commentators in evaluating what skills will be in highest demand—and some variation of adaptability or resilience makes every list.

Change is hard. It exposes vulnerabilities, robs us of control, and evokes a sometimes-visceral response. The fight or flight response won’t go away because of the speed that information gets to the amygdala (instinct center) versus the problem-solving center. But last year, I stumbled across this little nugget: in Navy Seal training, one of the tools recruits are taught to help build mental toughness is to take a split second’s pause before acting to regain control of the body’s response to fear-inducing stimulus. Aha. It can be learned!

Adaptability takes mental toughness. It’s what makes elite athletes elite. It’s what makes tennis phenom Roger Federer competitive even in middle age. At whatever level of an organization you sit, in this fourth revolution, it is critical to develop and flex. Here are some things to try:

Be prepared

One reason I love marketing in the tech space is that the complexity satisfies my curiosity-gene. But marketing and technology are a solid cultural fit, too. They both require agility, constant innovation, rapid iteration—and strive for continuous improvement. In the workplace, that means staying up to speed with industry direction, being honest about where your skills and gaps are, and working to shore them up.

Former US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis writes in Call Sign Chaos, Learning to Lead, that he was able to say “yes” to an unexpected opportunity because he’d spent his whole career working to master his profession. When it’s your time to shine—be ready for it.

Encourage the stretch

Being ready for an unexpected moment in the sun doesn’t happen unless you are prepared—and willing to get a little uncomfortable. We’re all busy. We tend to focus on our own workstream, what we’re best at, and avoid the discomfort of pushing ourselves in new directions. The result? Corporations grow siloes, line leaders get tunnel vision, runners get IT band syndrome. One solution? Cross-training.

As a company, Audienz places a high value on learning from one another or, as a senior leader recently described it: “blurring the lines between the swim lanes.” That value is borne out in the “buddy system,” where colleagues teach one another skills they are interested in learning.

In Range, author and investigative reporter David Epstein writes fervently about the value of cross-training. He describes the forecasting ability of a group of experts with a narrow specialty as “roughly as accurate as a dart-throwing chimpanzee.” By contrast, Charles Darwin, before his journey to the Galapagos, had read widely on natural history and also medicine, theology, philosophy, and geology. And changed the world. The lesson? Evolve.

Cultivate teamwork

A study of the NBA authored by consultant Peter Tollman surfaced the importance of collaboration and teamwork to long-term success:

“As more companies realize that agile ways of working are the new normal in our fast-moving information age, they are turning to cross-functional teams to speed things up and get work done.” These teams rely on communication and collaboration.

Transparency and communication help. Trust is a given. When the time comes for an organization to make a pivot, it’s too late to earn it. When your people know your values, are empowered to make decisions and feel like a partner—or at least an important part of something larger—they’re more willing to override the uncomfortable feelings change evokes.

Journalist Sebastian Junger suggests in Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging: “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.”

Let’s face it, adaptability has become table stakes. Even before the Covid pandemic forced businesses to think forward even faster, organizations have been doing more than ever to embrace changes that will strengthen them. They’ve taken on a lot: working to build inclusive and diverse workplaces, connecting a remote workforce, building a leadership pipeline… the list goes on.

Helping employees cultivate adaptability may feel like a nice-to-have, but it’s critical to architecting organizations that empower open, agile thinking and ways of doing that can withstand the next wave of change. Survival is good ROI.

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