The Importance Of Adaptability


Organizations that move faster are more successful. Decades of research have served to reinforce this point. This is even more important during a recession, where companies that aggressively invest outperform their competitors. As the effects of a recession are compounded with a pandemic, the importance of speed is enhanced. Conditions are changing on a weekly basis, making it extremely difficult to craft long term strategies. As strategies are developed, companies need to effectively adopt them as new information comes in, which is even harder when a workforce has a significant remote component. Perhaps not surprisingly then, people who feel that they are working from home most effectively during the pandemic are those who are most adaptable.

Organizational and individual adaptability shows up in behavioral data. At the communication network level, we can observe changing structures and patterns – are people connecting more with coworkers with who they haven’t communicated before? How much does communication shift from intra-team to external communication on a weekly basis? Individual data also can show significant changes – do work days always start and end at the same time? Does the response time to messages change significantly?

In our analysis of work data from dozens of global organizations, we’re able to break this notion of adaptability into its behavioral components: flexibility and organizational flatness.
At its basic level, the flexibility metric captures to what degree people on each team have similar behaviors and networks. In general, it’s better for these behaviors to be differentiated because if a particular way of doing things fails the team will likely already have models that will still work. Team members can communicate this, change their behaviors, and then continue to experiment under this new model.

This doesn’t just require different behaviors. The team’s culture also has to embrace different ways of working and sharing these paradigms internally to improve. If a team is consistently able to demonstrate that diversity, diffusion, and continued adaptation, they will be very successful in a wide variety of circumstances.
Organizational Flatness
Overly formal and hierarchical cultures are universally slower except in life or death situations (think military). In the vast majority of organizational contexts, the stratification of communication slows execution and information flow. This can be measured from communication data in a fairly straightforward fashion.

Many organizations increase flatness by connecting front line employees with leadership, and this is supported in many of our case studies as well as research. As an example, one of the world’s leading multinational technology firms was facing broad cultural challenges as a result of overwork and an overly hierarchical culture. The company was also in the midst of a new office buildout and therefore considering a restructure of the organization to improve culture, drive efficient communication, and build trust with employees. To help inform their re-org strategy, the company leveraged Humanyze to identify organizational behaviors related to meeting culture and cross-level collaboration, as well as understand the impacts of physical location and proximity.

The analysis revealed that the primary culprits behind the long working days were long meetings and physical separation of key teams, while minimal collaboration between different age groups and tenures was hindering them from being a flatter organization. As a result of these findings, the company reduced the number of meetings and implemented maximum meeting lengths to leave more time for teams to get their work done and interact informally with other groups in the organization. They also plan to restructure and relocate key groups in the new office to promote a better, more adaptable culture with efficient communication. You can read more about it here.

In another example, a leading pharmaceutical company wanted to better understand the role of managers within the organization, as well as the impacts of different managerial behaviors. The company partnered with Humanyze to analyze collaboration patterns over a 3-month period, and measure them against team performance KPI’s and employee responses from a recent manager survey. Overall, the communication patterns pointed to a hierarchical structure where managers and leadership served as the primary “connectors” between teams and departments, which also resulted in much longer working days for these leaders compared to the rest of the organization. The findings also revealed that top-rated managers (based on survey results) of high-performing teams structured their workdays in blocks of time dedicated to different tasks and balanced their time spent with leadership, direct reports, and colleagues outside of their team(s) evenly. By allocating specific blocks of time to things like meetings or emails, the most effective managers freed up longer stretches of the day for focus work and “informal”, spontaneous interactions. Further highlighting the importance of managerial behaviors, analysis also revealed that teams tended to mirror the working styles of their managers. Those with managers who exhibited these types of behaviors were also better at structuring their day and more connected to the broader organization. These insights provided the company with a blueprint for optimizing manager workstyles and a data-based strategy for driving a flatter, more efficient organization at all levels.

As these case studies demonstrate, however, to reduce hierarchicalism buy in and action from the top is essential. While flexibility can be promoted in a bottom-up fashion, that’s nearly impossible for flatness.
Why Now?
Increasing adaptability may always seem to be important, but in the current environment, it’s absolutely essential. Investments in adaptability yield benefits in the medium and long term, and companies that don’t build an adaptable culture will find it extremely difficult to catch up.

In one recent example, a major US bank pulled their entire IT organization off other work for 3 weeks to overhaul their systems to support different working patterns. In their case, that meant going from being 100% in the office to supporting work from home while maintaining high levels of security. Now in different regions they’re able to pivot between the office and work from home effortlessly, with no disruption to the business.

It’s important to note, however, that they lost 3 weeks of productivity because they hadn’t invested in this beforehand. Put a different way, their yearly performance is likely 6% lower because they weren’t already adaptable. If they already had diverse collaboration patterns in place, IT wouldn’t have had to scramble. The question moving forward is whether or not they can maintain it, and it’s here where constantly keeping an eye on flexibility and organizational flatness metrics is essential.

Overall, everyone has had to adapt more than normal during the pandemic. If we embrace the uncertain, embrace reacting to changing conditions, we can make it sustainable for the long term. This requires organizations to support and embrace that behavioral diversity, and sustained effort and measurement to understand which parts of the organization need more help or resources to continue. Only through that adaptation can we grow beyond the pandemic and move forward into a more dynamic work environment.

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