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10 Ways to Build an Adaptive Culture in Your Organization


In this post-Great Recession era, too many companies are suffering from a lack of growth in revenue, profit, and job creation. Company leaders are facing unparalleled technology shifts, increased competition, changing government regulations, and accelerating globalization.

So how can managers respond to unprecedented challenges and create increased innovation, jobs, and top- and bottom-line growth? Some would tell you that new challenges require whole new leadership tactics. I disagree.

The truth is that unprecedented challenges (just not these particular ones) are nothing new—change is a constant. Fortunately, leaders can create growth despite these challenges. Research has proven that an unconventional approach can enable company leaders to sustain high performance, even in the face of great change, by creating a change-adaptive culture.

Specifically, in 2011 Jim Heskett and John Kotter published Corporate Culture and Performance, sharing an updated version of the seminal work they first offered more than 20 years ago. It provides great insights for today’s leaders.

The authors offer impressive data to support their central assertion: If you build an adaptive culture, rather than simply a strong culture, you can create long-term economic performance. The results of the dozens of companies studied over 11 years are compelling.

Heskett and Kotter go on to offer specific advice on how to create this type of culture. They focus on actions (discipline, support, and creativity) and attributes (insight and values) that lead to performance-enhancing and change-adaptive cultures.

Here are the top 10 ways you can build an adaptive culture in your organization:

  1. Create a sense of crisis and a need for change and new direction
  2. Communicate consistently and broadly
  3. Display an “outsiders” propensity to embrace change and new ideas
  4. Reinforce the importance of innovation
  5. Build and maintain an “insiders” credibility
  6. Institute a balanced focus on the success of customers, employees, and share owners
  7. Establish leadership or the ability to produce change as an important focus at ALL levels
  8. Decentralize decision making where possible
  9. Promote carefully and demote when necessary
  10. 10.Operate as a servant leader

I have personally seen the benefits offered by this approach in organizations from all sizes and in all industries. For example, an internet startup facing a market crash grew revenue from $1M to $11M in just a year while a multinational tripled its revenue growth rate from 5 to 15%, growing to $5B while facing intense market competition. In each case, both employee and customer satisfaction reached new levels.

With so many companies facing challenges, will more follow the proven path forward outlined by Heskett and Kotter?

Only time will tell. The path is not easy. It has been rare that organizations have committed to the discipline, support, creativity, insight, and commitment to values required to build truly change-adaptive cultures. Those who chose to follow the path consistently benefited with strong results.

With the levels of complexity and challenges ever growing, leaders would be well served to make this unconventional approach a little more conventional. Should you try it?

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