What is Adaptive Capacity?

While adaptive capacity is relatively well understood in natural systems (i.e. biological and genetic diversification, etc.), it remains an elusive concept in the social sphere where there is much talk about adaptation, but no clear understanding of what is required.

Common themes related to adaptive capacity pertain to having flexibility and the ability to adjust to changes (both positive and negative) and to deal with the consequences in a productive way.  Having the ability to instigate change proactively is another common theme.  Adaptive capacity is also closely associated with the ability to learn; to store knowledge and information; to combine different types of knowledge and to access this knowledge, information and expertise when needed.      

Carl Sussman (2003) describes four qualities which characterize adaptive organizations: external focus; strong network connectivity; inquisitiveness; and innovation. Having an external focus means being acutely aware of one’s external environment and the complex dynamics involved.  It also means understanding what the interdependencies are and finding points of influence.  Having an external focus also involves information exchange and allowing outside perspectives and knowledge into your organization.

Adaptive organizations also maintain strong network connectivity.  The power of networks is now widely recognized and with the speed that information and communication can now take place, being plugged into networks is an essential adaptive capacity.

The third quality is inquisitiveness and refers to organizational learning, collecting data and translating information into knowledge.  Monitoring and evaluation is an important aspect as is knowledge management.  Actively seeking out information and applying this information builds adaptive capacity.

Lastly, innovation characterizes organizations with adaptive capacity.  This refers to openness to trying something new or different, experimentation and fostering this creative process.  Innovation helps organizations initiate change and is fueled by diversity defined in the broadest sense possible beyond race and gender, including different disciplinary backgrounds, training and personalities.

So how do you build this adaptive capacity? There is no doubt that this will require a very deliberate and purposeful process.  At AdaptivePurpose (www.adaptivepurpose.org) we recognize the challenges organizations have in building adaptive capacity and we work closely with organizations to develop on-going systems to build external awareness, collect data and turn this data into knowledge.  We draw from systems thinking approaches and complexity theory, which is particularly useful for operating in an uncertain and complex environment. It often begins with situational analysis and repositioning of traditional planning tools and then building on information and knowledge gained through adaptive and iterative planning and evaluation cycles.

Does your organization have the adaptive capacity needed to operate in an uncertain environment? Do you wish to proactively shape your trajectory through a complex operating environment?  We offer a suite of services which can range from one-time workshops and specific task oriented consultations to longer-term ongoing support.  Our goal, though, is to help organizations gain the tools and perspectives to build and sustain adaptive capacity on their own terms.  If you are interested in learning more or working with us, please contact Kirsten at kbcollins@adaptivepurpose.org



Carl Sussman (2003) Building Adaptive Capacity: The Quest for Improved Organizational Performance. Retrieved from http://wikiciv.org.rs/images/5/5d/Sussman_%282004%29_Building_Adaptive_Capacity.pdf