What is Adaptive Capacity?

Adaptive capacity refers to the ability of any system to respond to change and return to a state of balance. I first heard of this concept in relation to the nonprofit sector in the United States. However, it can be applied to ecological systems, any type of organization, and even individuals.

An example of adaptive capacity in an ecological system would be of a river valley experiencing heavy rainfall. For a time the water level in the river will be much higher than normal. Most of the time the river basin will absorb the water fairly quickly and the water level will return to normal within a day or two. However, if the volume of rain exceeds the river basin’s capacity, the river will flood.

Change Fatigue
When an organization or an individual has an excessive amount of change in a short period of time, something has to give. To build on my previous analogy, the system will “flood” or break down in some way. For an organization the “flood” may take the form of communication breakdowns, high turnover, and low productivity. For an individual it could be extreme stress, relationship problems, or even physical and mental health issues.

These symptoms of change fatigue occur because the system isn’t strong and flexible enough to adapt.

Building Adaptive Capacity
It is possible to build adaptive capacity in and organization in much the same way as it is possible to build muscles in a human body – through regular, sustained exercise. When an organization is proactively engaged in steady, small changes, it will be much better positioned to handle external changes when they come up.

Here is just a small sampling of exercises that can build adaptive capacity.

  1. Scenario Planning. An in-depth look at scenario planning requires its own post. For the time being it is enough to know that the process involves a team envisioning possible futures and detailing plans for those futures. The idea is to have possible actions for many situations, so that the organization is prepared for as many outcomes as possible.
  2. Cross Training. Many organizations are running so lean now that they don’t have adequate “bench strength” in the case of a team member absence. Cross training is definitely helpful during times like flu season. However, it’s also an advantage to have cross-trained members so that the organization has multiple perspectives to adapt and improve processes. One person performing the same job for years can become inflexible or run out of ideas for making changes. Multiple perspectives of the same job can build the capacity for adaptation and continuous improvements.
  3. “State of the Industry” Meetings. Many fields, such as real estate, have annual, local forecast meetings. These meetings allow members of that profession to get together and discuss expert projections and their own hunches of the coming year. If you don’t work in one of these fields, you can still have your own information exchange sessions with other members of your organization. Assign everyone a sub-topic to research and discuss the findings among your team or the whole organization. In rapidly changing fields, a quarterly meeting might be even better.

Change is Easier When You Know What’s Coming
In many ways, building adaptive capacity is a lot like building your crystal ball gazing skills. It’s pretty hard to adapt to circumstances that you just couldn’t see coming. In fact, we usually call those events “crises” or sometimes “acts of terrorism!” The good news is that most change follows fairly predictable patterns. Through careful study and information exchange, most organizations in most fields will be able to get the big things right.

These are ideas that I’ve picked up through my studies and experiences within a few types of organizations. If you’ve had different experiences, or tips for building adaptive capacity, please share those in the comments below.

photo by: dullhunk