Now, More than Ever, Organizations Must Cultivate Adaptability

How can mission-driven organizations cultivate adaptability as part of the DNA of the organizational structure?

By Celeste Smith, CAE

A fish jumping out of a bowl full of fish into an empty bowl

Adaptability is a driving force in workplace innovation and creativity, especially during times of uncertainty. In fact, the pandemic magnified the need for this competency in ways that are still being discovered. This is important considering mission-driven organizations tend to be traditional in their approach and slow to embrace change. The changes experienced globally were like a one-two punch: either catalyzing organizations poised to adapt or dismantling organizational systems unable to act swiftly.

How can mission-driven organizations cultivate adaptability as part of the DNA of the organizational structure? This is a mindset shift that requires rethinking the ecosystem from the ground up and commitment to building future-focused capabilities that support growth.  According to McKinsey’s article on solving the ‘adaptability paradox’, adaptability is an evergreen skill. As with any skill, there are indicators of adaptability within an ecosystem that include big drivers such as mission, focus, staffing structure, agility, talent management models, and outlook on change (see Deloitte’s adaptable organization monitor).

As organizations continuously pivot to keep pace with the evolving landscape, the following questions can assist in looking at the drivers and cultivating the mindset needed for adaptability to become part of the DNA of the organization.

Mission Driven and/or Profit Driven

Looking through a new lens brought on by the pandemic, how close are the products and services aligned with the mission of the organization? Is there a process to pivot (sunset or redirect) if there is now misalignment?


Does the data (environmental scan, etc.) indicate that the organization is in alignment with member, customer, and industry needs?  

Staffing Structure

When considering the future, do the current staffing structures support the envisioned future state? If not, what adjustments can be made to support less hierarchical, more informal and agile, cross-functional teams (that are empowered to make decisions)?

Talent Management

Do your talent management structures and supporting systems embrace intentional onboarding, fluid career development and focus on culture? What steps can be taken to move to a more adaptable approach?

Outlook on Change

What organizational indicators give you insight into your outlook on change readiness? Is the organization focused on adapting to continuous uncertainties or getting back to normal (maintaining the status quo, etc.)? Is there a change management process to support incremental and big transformational change? How does continuous learning fit into the equation?

As employers hire for adaptability, it is important for organizations to support adaptability at the systemic level. This includes a commitment to creating an inclusive culture that supports a sense of purpose and belonging.

Forum Board Members Sound Off on Adaptability

Bob Moore headshot Association Forum board members were asked about adaptability and Bob Moore, Executive Director, American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians, had this to say. “Adaptability is a characteristic I have looked for during the hiring process. For adaptability to really thrive, I feel it’s critical to help foster a culture of psychological safety and ensure recognition and rewards are aligned with this expectation.”
Denise Froemming headshot

Denise Froemming, Chief Executive Officer, IREM, agrees that adaptability “is by far one of the most important attributes to hire for and develop in all leaders. It can be nurtured in a culture making space for people to be open to possibilities, fail and get back up quickly. Where I have seen adaptability transform organizations and people is when shifting to a matrix or non-conventional organizational structure.  Furthermore, organizations become nimbler and more inclusive as bench strength is increased and people are encouraged to observe, learn, and grow.”

Matt Sanderson headshot Matt Sanderson, President & CEO, SmithBucklin, highlights resilience and operating in an uncertain environment as key strategic imperatives. “Resilience and the ability to operate in an uncertain and unpredictable environment have been critical skills. We have all been forced to adapt. Professionals at all levels, including leadership, are going to be asked to demonstrate capacity, the ability to achieve a permanent, changed, future state based on what we have observed, experienced, collaborated on or imagined.”


Adaptability — as a personal skill set and as a core organizational competency — has to be cultivated and incorporated into the fabric of the organization. Continuous learning is key to this endeavor. It will be important for organizations to assess what changes need to be put in place to support sustained forward momentum aligned with future organizational success.

Editor’s Note: Thanks for reading! Does it seem like you’re hearing the phrase in this article’s title — “now more than ever” — a lot lately? You’re not wrong! Here’s more on that. If you enjoyed this article and feel you have something to add to the conversation, maybe you should write for us. Forum is always looking for volunteer writers. Please fill out this form and we’ll be in touch.

About the Author

Celeste Smith, CAE is an association professional and a member of Forum's Content Working Group.

Related Articles


CEO Perspectives on Association Forum’s Governance Professional Practice Statments

Association Forum members have access to professional practice statements. A committee reviews these statements annually....

how did you find association industry

Work/Life: How Did You Find Your Way to the Association Industry?

Most of us are accidental association professionals. Find out how two women landed in this...

Old fashioned bronze key levitating over dark backgorund. Solution concept.

The Importance of Authenticity in New Power Leadership

Seasoned association executive Jim McNeil says that authenticity is the key to New Power Leadership.