/ 12 April 2024

Adaptability can change your life and save the world

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On the first day of 2019, LinkedIn published an article titled Why Creativity is the Most Important Skill in the World. Now, five years later, LinkedIn has published another piece titled Adaptability is the Skill of the Year 2024.

So has adaptability replaced creativity as the most important skill at work? What does this mean? What’s the difference? Why should you care? Or should you? 

Answers: Not exactly. Everything and nothing. Almost nothing. You’ll see. Yes you should, a lot.

World Creativity and Innovation Week is back, beginning on Leonardo da Vinci’s birthday, 15  April, and ending with World Creativity and Innovation Day on 21  April — one day before International Mother Earth Day. Both are United Nations days of observance. 

The UN webpage declares the importance of creativity to our sustainable future. And founder Marcie Segal also chose that date to connect creativity to making a difference in something bigger. 

She said: “Wouldn’t it be great if people knew how to use their natural ability to generate new ideas, make new decisions, take new actions and achieve new outcomes, to make the world a better place and to make their place in the world better too?”

It sure would be. But what we mostly do with creativity is also great — which is to make our own lives more functional by overcoming our thousands of daily problems, from figuring out what to wear when we wake up to planning our work calendar for tomorrow before we sleep. 

There are hundreds of definitions of creativity out there, but it boils down to solving problems, at home, in the art world, in business. 

I like to simplify things in my own definition: creativity is thinking differently from yourself. 

Thinking differently from others is a good start. But it doesn’t help you solve the problem when you’re stuck. When your thinking is stuck, it’s you that’s in the way of solving the problem. The place you are thinking from is unlikely to be the place where the problem can best be solved. That’s why you’re stuck.

It’s like trying to get along with your partner in an argument — change yourself, not them. Shift your thinking to meet the challenge where it wants to be met and you will solve it more easily. You get new ideas. And then you innovate. Innovation is acting differently from yourself. To get there, we usually try to change our thoughts first. That doesn’t work well. That’s where adaptability comes in. Changing our thoughts starts with changing our being. Adaptability is being different from yourself, shifting your very essence — at least momentarily. 

Identity is the source of ideas. You can only have the ideas you would have. To have different thoughts, you need to be different. So adapting is the first step in the problem-solving process. 

Studies show we have a new thought every waking second. Adapting first makes our thoughts more efficient. We can slow down and focus — think less and better, and be more effective in acting.

In a sense, adapting is innovating yourself. And you have to innovate yourself first before you can innovate anything outside yourself.

Adapt to create. Create to innovate. After innovation, adapt to the new reality. It’s a cycle I call “innotivity.” When we do it properly, it spirals up and creates breakthrough results. When we do it wrong, we end up in burnout.

This is why adaptable people make decisions 2.5 times faster and have half as many mental health problems. It’s why adaptable companies have 50% better employee retention, 70% better customer retention, 30% more success in innovation, 300% fewer bankruptcies. 

Yet more than two-thirds of companies are low in adaptability. And a similar number of employees say they’re not adaptable. What’s going on here? 

We’re born adaptable. As children we can be anything. Adapting isn’t just easy, it’s our birthright. Isn’t it?

In my first Mail & Guardian piece (during World Creativity and Innovation Week two years ago), I pointed out that celebrating creativity demands celebrating ourselves. And we should because we are creativity machines. 

But that same creativity machine is also a judgment and selection machine. And as we “grow up” we become clearer and so more rigid about the “self” we’re creating. We put our concept of who we are more and more in the way. We forget we created ourself in the first place.

We adapt into this persona then get addicted to it. Then adapting starts to seem more and more difficult. It’s even harder when we’re collaborating with others in a company or a team or a family. Even harder when we’re competing. This is one explanation of why we fight with each other. Both parties refuse to adapt themselves to circumstances.

Maybe adaptability as a concept came a bit late to the party. Joseph Schumpeter introduced the importance of innovation in his Theory of Economic Development in 1911. JP Guilford made creativity a hot topic at the American Psychological Association in 1950. But somehow we overlooked adaptability until Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock in 1970. Toffler wrote that the rate of technological change had become so fast that people were becoming sick with a disease he called future shock — we call it burnout.

His solution was adaptability, the ability to unlearn and relearn quickly. He called this shift the biggest change since mammals crawled out of the sea. Humans had always survived mainly by mimicking previous success, which was a bit stupid, actually. Darwin had already shown us a century before that adaptability is the essential truth of evolution. Somehow we didn’t get this for most of our existence. 

But now we do. Hence, humanity has shifted to a focus on continual adaptation. What’s incredible is that Future Shock came out 20 years before the internet went public, 30 to 40 years before Facebook, X or Insta. The world’s information at Toffler’s time was doubling every year. Now it’s more than twice daily. 

To help us, we now have the Adaptability Quotient (AQ) — the 21st century version of IQ — which measures an individual’s and a team’s ability and willingness to adapt, and can recommend and target improvements. It’s easier to work with than the creativity tests I’ve come across, perhaps because adaptability is purer and more intrinsic. 

I use this assessment as a core launch point for transformational training because, as Peter Drucker said, “What’s measured improves.” And AQ is now fairly easy to measure.

So why should you care about adaptability? We need to embrace our human skill to adapt, create and innovate. And to do it in the right order — and intentionally.

Imagine a world where every single human was highly adaptable. What would happen to war? What would happen to domestic abuse and murder statistics? What would happen in your life? In your job and relationships?

What these three words have in common is: it starts with you. 

I invite you to become more conscious of who you are being every time you face a problem or conflict. I invite you to practice shifting who you are being to generate more productive thoughts and more effective behaviours to get better results and, as Segal said, make the whole world better. And your world too.

To be more productive or generous or successful or happy — you decide.

The best part is you can adapt again later today. So have no fear. Make your choice and adapt into it.

Michael Lee is an advisory board member of World Creativity and Innovation Week/Day, and a Radio 702 creativity contributor.