For individuals and organizations alike, the future of work requires us to learn, unlearn and adapt
I have been a big admirer of Heather McGowan’s work for some time. She has huge credibility as a commentator on the future, and is hugely enlightening as a terrific curator of insight and statistics. She is a real macro trend-spotter and storyteller. So I had high expectations of her new book, The Adaptation Advantage: Let Go, Learn Fast and Thrive in the Future of Work, which is written jointly with Chris Shipley and includes a foreword from renowned New York Times columnist Thomas L Friedman. I am pleased to say that my expectations were more than met.
The Adaptation Advantage is a compelling and smartly-presented read, devoid of hype and strong on substance. In essence, it is a manual for strategists, creative leaders and inventive teams about the future of work. The premise is, of course, that adaptation is key to the future. But for all that we might think “Of course it is”, time and again, we experience and see failures of adaptation and a lack of adaptability around us in today’s organizations.
In my view – although this is not an accusation that McGowan and Shipley level at anyone – we are under the illusion that we’re more adaptive than we really are. It’s why this book is very much needed. The approach is a little like tackling the exam question “how do you navigate the future?” several times over, but a clear structure makes it a consistently pleasurable reading experience.
The book makes the case that technology is transforming the world of work faster than ever. Its power and reach have already outstripped our ability to make sense of it all. If you’re into Ray Kurzweil, Peter Diamandis or Salim Ismail’s Exponential Organizations and his ‘law of accelerating returns’ you will be nodding in approval at McGowan and Shipley’s assessment and the variety of insight that is curated and shared here. Yet McGowan and Shipley’s take on cognitive skills is fascinating. They are strong champions of the power of the human mind: “silicon cognition”, as they dub it, cannot replace the cognitive prowess evolved by humans over millions of years.
As technological augmentation, automation and atomization gather pace, we are commonly urged to shift our jobs to keep pace with technological advances. McGowan and Shipley urge us not to tether our identity to our jobs, because the pace of change is stripping us of our comfortable work-centric identities – a process that can be profoundly destabilizing. Instead of jobs being designed because a specific pile of work has emerged (think of the number of social media manager jobs created as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and so on have boomed), McGowan and Shipley advise us to focus first on skills, untethered to jobs. In effect, they invite people to augment and create their own roles. Jobs flow from this.
The approach is akin to adaptive and iterative design, but done by everyone, rather than just a line manager or HR department. This has huge appeal: McGowan and Shipley are surely right that we all need to take more accountability for retooling ourselves.
As for our businesses, they must also change their focus: from extracting value to creating new value through learning. McGowan and Shipley may not be the first to make the argument – Peter Senge and others have extolled the virtues of a “learning organization” for some time now – but they connect the idea powerfully to our current situation.
The book also looks at how teams need to change (a reflection of the highly-practical approach taken by the authors throughout). It amplifies the sense that culture and capacity together define the teamwork of the future – not just capability. This feels absolutely right, because we have to think about the space we need to create to do work that is getting more complex, more technologically-enabled and entangled. One critical implication: adaptive teams must hire for alignment with values, instead of past skills and experience.
When we step back and look at over 40 years of teams-based research, it isn’t charisma, niceness, aligned-behaviours and generosity of spirit that defines a good team (although they help provide harmony and a sense of being together). Rather, it’s a clear and compelling direction, including what we are up for, and up against. That includes a strong sense of structure. Nothing in The Adaptation Advantage says we need less structure in our teams: we just need strong but pliable adaptive structures.
For any leader, knowing more about the trends that are set to shape our future can help us orient towards it: to understand what we can prepare for, even if we can’t precisely plan for it. That preparedness is the hallmark of an adaptively advantaged team, along with an ability to leverage our knowledge and behave in ways that enable us – as individuals, organizations and teams – to be adaptive. As the future of work unfolds, that’s an advantage we can’t be without.