Adaptive and responsive action. What’s the difference?

on Oct 31, 2014 in Blog

Normally at this time of year, I’d be reaching for the winter woollies – cardigans, jumpers, coats and scarves. But not this year. Not yet, anyway.

When I went out earlier this week, I instinctively put another layer on and grabbed a scarf to keep out the expected Autumn chill. Yet within 5 minutes, the scarf was off, followed a few minutes later by the cardigan. Unusually there was wall to wall sunshine and, by UK standards, it was like summer!

By removing the layers I didn’t need, I was able to adapt to the weather conditions. (Having worked in Chicago, where Fall temperatures can fluctuate wildly, I’d learned the value of layers).

Being able to take adaptive action is useful, sometimes imperative, when you’re confronted by unexpected or changing conditions. Faced with unexpectedly good weather, all I could do was to (happily) adapt to the conditions I found.

Adaptability is highly prized in many organisations today. Leaders and organisations are encouraged to become more agile and adaptable to changing conditions. Adapt or die, is a common mantra in a working world that seems evermore volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA).

Adaptability, once learned, can be pretty automatic. I didn’t have to think much about adding or removing extra layers. That’s useful, because there was nothing I could have done to influence the weather conditions that day.

But, in organisations, becoming really good at adapting to prevailing conditions is not necessarily the most effective strategy for longer-term success. Especially when adapting becomes the automatic ‘go to’ solution. That’s because a strategy of agility that is overplayed and becomes dominant means that an organisation, team or individual can get stuck on a sub-optimal peak of performance.



From a complexity perspective, this comes from Stuart Kauffman’s idea of Rugged Fitness Landscapes, where adaptation may mean becoming stuck on a sub-optimal peak of fitness.



Responsive action is different. In organisations, what everyone is saying and doing as they interact in their everyday work creates conditions that affect what people feel they can and cannot say and do. We often refer to these conditions as the culture or climate in an organisation or team.

Example: The owner of a precision manufacturing company in Singapore, proudly told me how a project director had scrapped a large consignment of pipework that the customer was happy to accept – at a significant cost to the company, and a delay to the project – because he was concerned about its quality. The conditions (culture) of the company, made that action acceptable, whereas in many others, it would more likely have meant career suicide for that project director.

Taking responsive action means looking into the patterning of those prevailing conditions in organisations more deeply. It means actively searching for new data about what’s changing (and that’s likely to be ‘small data’), and making the most of weak signals. It means interrogating that data to highlight potential issues and opportunities in what’s emerging. And it means choosing your responses into those patterns, based on that systematic learning about what’s changing.

In a changing world, habitual responses (even agile ones) can inadvertently make emerging issues more problematic. We already know that prizing profit above all, can create climates where ethics, safety, or customer needs may get overlooked, until some costly reputational disaster strikes. What is needed is informed, responsive action which takes account of the deeper patterning of change.


Adaptive action Responsive action
Automatic (single-loop learning) Informed (double-loop learning)
Intuitive – based on old data Data driven – looks for new data
Adapts to prevailing conditions Co-creates new conditions
Reacts to emerging patterns Influences emerging patterns


Learning from data about what’s changing to inform responsive action makes sense at any time. But instituting a conscious process to do that is vital in times of change.  As an organisational system is pushed far from its normal equilibrium through the press of events, unintended consequences are more likely. And those leading in the midst of that are less likely to spot them, until the finger points at those in charge and asks, ‘why didn’t they see it coming?’