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The spirit of purposeful optimism… and four ways to grow your adaptive capacity.

"Amidst it all, if there is one thing we’ve come to realise, it’s that working hard to preserve that precious spirit of purposeful optimism lies at the heart of figuring out how to navigate these crazy times."


by Hamish Wilson, Director and Principal Consultant, Wasafiri

Extreme times bring out the best in people (They also bring out the worst, but I’m not interested in yet MORE clips of people hoarding toilet roll…!)

Everywhere I turn, I’ve been inspired by examples of people and their organisations stepping forth, some boldly, some gingerly, with new ideas, experiments and innovations to help the world come to grips with realities that are shifting every day.

There’s a growing number of inspiring innovations out there if you look for them

For instance, agricultural drone companies in China have sprung into action to adapt their drones to spray disinfectant in public places.

School classes in Nigeria are being delivered online, in an experiment which holds the promise of transforming education for poor children worldwide.

Here in Kenya, mobile phone based payment systems are being used to pay bills, reducing the need for handling cash. (And if you REALLY want to be inspired, take a hilarious look at one man’s invention for converting his kitchen into a home gym during Covid-lockdown here).

There’s nothing like a crisis to remind us of the spirit of purposeful optimism.

Humankind’s ingenuity, as well as our compassion, is never more evident than in a crisis. And I suspect that it’s our ‘purposeful optimism’ – that uniquely human spirit of finding new ways to adapt to times of profound uncertainty – that will see us through.

But harnessing the promise and spirit of purposeful optimism doesn’t happen by accident. In our ongoing struggle to shape Wasafiri into an organisation fit to tackle some of humanity’s biggest challenges, we’ve been struck by the obvious over and over; it takes a LOT of thought, discipline and persistence to build the adaptive capacity or your organisation. Below, I’ll share a few practical lessons which might help, but before I do, here is a bit more on what I mean by ‘adaptive capacity’.

The essence of adaptive capacity – who would fare better in a crisis?

If you cast a quick glance at the two organisations described below, you’ll no doubt guess which is more likely to be successful in harvesting new ideas, spotting emerging opportunities and translating them into viable prototypes and initiatives. The concept of adaptive capacity is better explained by the Harvard Business Review here, but in essence, is the degree to which institutions (and species) are able adjust to changing circumstances.



Four lessons for building adaptive capacity

1. Let go of the orthodoxy of efficiency.

Adaptation comes from trying stuff and quickly improving what seems to work a bit, and letting go of the stuff that doesn’t work at all. Adaptation needs failure (there are a lot of books on this – try Black Box Thinking by Mathew Syed). The problem is that this is an inherently inefficient process. Now, there is nothing wrong with efficiency; some parts of your organisation, as well as your to-do list, really need it. However, if it is the only thing that drives you and your team, then you are bound to become extremely efficient… until you become obsolete.

Covid-19 is forcing us to change, every day and in every way. How are you experimenting within this new-ness? What are you trying and learning as you go? What are you letting go of? Right now, we’d suggest asking your people; ‘What are we learning?’ rather than ‘What are we getting right?’

2. You need other people.

You need intelligent feedback. Right now. From everywhere; from your market, your people, your competitors, your suppliers. We’re watching organisations the world over pivot incredibly fast as they let go (for now, and maybe forever) of long-held market niches and service offerings. This might be driven by the desire for survival or the opportunity for growth (or both). For example, beer company Brew Dog is now making hand sanitiser (which they are giving away for free) instead of beer – they’re doing this because their customers are telling them what they need more of, and what they are valuing, right now.

Surround Yourself with Optimists

3. Know there will be loss.

Adaptation is about moving from what was to what is. Transitions always involves loss. The bigger the transition, the bigger the loss. The new normal of remote working is an adaptation that saves many people unproductive commuting and lowers their carbon footprint. But there is the loss of human contact and connection to contend with. The reason adaptation is often hard has less to do with the failure to see new opportunities and more to do with the pain of letting go of those parts of the current state that ‘are working’ in some way at some level.

4. Work with the mess.

In more predictable times, we usually try to predict, and then plan, and then execute. This (sometimes) works well enough when the world we are in is stable (and even when it doesn’t work it provides a reassuring sense of control). But this is not the world of today. Right now, we are in an unstable and emergent environment that no one has ever experienced before – one for which there is no rule book, and no right answers.

Adaptation is about sensing, learning and adapting as you go. Sure, chart a course or set a direction, but then realise that often the best you can do might be to simply ask ‘so what do we need to do next?’ and to keep asking, day after day after day. This isn’t the time for a top-down, centralised plan – now is the time to get messy, and learn as we go.

US General Stanley McCrystal warns us of the dangers of command-and-control in Team of Teams. In struggling to adapt to complex, unpredictable insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, he rebuilt US Special Forces around two questions which may be useful in adapting to Covid-19 times; ‘How can we embed a collective consciousness across the organisation?’ and ‘How best can we devolve execution to the decision makers?’

All of these are useful lessons we’ve learned the hard way. But I’ll be honest; this past decade of creating Wasafiri has taught us first-hand that there are no silver bullets for building adaptive capacity, especially during times of crisis. But we’re relentlessly looking for new ways to test, learn and adapt as we go; for instance, we’re working with Co-Create at the UK’s National Health Service to build greater capacity for systems-leadership. We’re helping a large foundation consider the rapidly evolving risks of investing in a conflict-affected region and we’re piloting new ways to connect young African entrepreneurs with potential social-impact investors… and more.

Amidst it all, if there is one thing we’ve come to realise, it’s that working hard to preserve that precious spirit of purposeful optimism lies at the heart of figuring out how to navigate these crazy times.

Onward, fellow travellers!


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