4 Traits of an Adaptive Organization

In the last few blog posts, we have been talking about the nature of organizational culture. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the best possible culture to support environments where there is a high degree of change or what Courtney (2001) calls residual uncertainty.

Perhaps that’s why I love baseball so much. Baseball is so wonderfully simple!  At best, it might get complicated. But, unlike complex scenarios, baseball presents a series of challenges to be solved. All of the solutions already exist and it’s a question of applying the right solution, at the right time, and executing it flawlessly. Nothing to it.

Most organizations don’t work like the game of baseball, unfortunately. Navigating organizational leadership means finding our way in a world where often our best solutions, perfectly executed, will fail anyway.


Complex environments require a certain kind of culture to thrive. In fact, culture will make or break the health of an organization. Following are four characteristics of cultures that best support complex environments.

1. Hierarchy is Secondary

So, how do complex, adaptive systems thrive?

  1. When they have the least rules possible to produce the desired patterns of behaviour across the system
  2. When members or agents in the system have freedom for self-organization, which leads to emergent change

This is the antithesis of a hierarchy culture (one of four cultures that emerge from Cameron and Quinn’s competing values framework (2011)). Your organization may function under a hierarchy culture if it does the following:

  • Relies heavily on rules and policies
  • Upholds bureaucracy
  • Manages employees with command-and-control style leadership

When a culture becomes overly dependent on rules, bureaucracy and command-and-control management, it moves into a state of extreme rigidity that prevents it from adapting to changes in its environment.

2. Adaptive Organizations Compete Against Themselves

Complex systems are adaptive, suggesting that they are constantly changing in order maintain the best possible fitness landscape. Unlike a market culture that thrives in a highly competitive, results-driven environment, complex, adaptive systems are more concerned about their own fitness than benchmarking against others.

3. Adaptation Emerges “from the Ground Up”

A key to adaptation is having a high degree of innovation within the system, adapting as it must to changes in both its internal and external environment. These innovations typically occur closest to the actual work of the organization and are driven by those who are doing the work.

This is consistent with an adhocracy culture. An adhocracy culture is recognized by the following traits:

  • A dynamic and creative working environment
  • System members take risks without fear of being reprimanded
  • Experimentation and innovation are the bonding materials within the organization

4. Teamwork and Supportive Leadership are Essential

As we have discussed in a previous blog, a clan culture is marked by its commitment to:

  • Collaboration and teamwork
  • Leaders who serve primarily as coaches
  • Leaders who see results emerging when people are given the support and freedom to take ownership for their own work
  • Empowering people to develop on-the-ground solutions that best suit the situation they face

In my experience, a strong clan culture, closely supported by a high level of adhocracy will keep and organization on the edge of chaos, which is where complex, adaptive systems thrive.

Peter_bio2Peter Dickens

Peter Dickens is passionate about leadership and change. He helps people and organizations that serve others to revitalize their leadership and ministry at tyndale.ca/leadership. Follow Peter on Twitter (@Dr_PeterDickens).

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