The Adaptive Project Manager Skills Series: Making change part of your DNA

10 March

Evolutionary biology is one of the models adaptive leadership has at its core. This is important because evolution, the process by which successive change is passed from parent to offspring in the hopes the offspring will thrive, also applies to organisations and the way they operate. Adaptive project managers take the evolutionary biology model and incorporate it into their daily behavior. What does the model look like?

Simply stated, in evolutionary biology organisms change their DNA through a process that has four major components:

  1. Diversity
  2. Experimentation
  3. Loss
  4. Time

Let’s take these one by one.


It’s long been known that diverse populations in organisations typically outperform homogenous groups when it comes to generating new ideas or innovative concepts. History is generously sprinkled with examples where major breakthroughs and advances did not come from experts in the field, but from sparks ignited by outsiders with little or scant experience. Without diversity things remain in stasis, unchanging except for entropy and decay.


In biology, every new offspring offers a chance to experiment with changes to its core DNA. Successful experiments show improvement. Unsuccessful experiments provide ‘guidance’ as to what doesn’t work. And it stands to reason that the more experiments that happen, the larger the opportunities exists to see both types of outcomes.

But just exposing things that work and those that don’t is not enough. This is where loss comes in.


In biology, those things that don’t work are shed and the those that do work, are kept. Most organisations practice a form of this at a macro level by attempting to keep high performing employees and discharging those that don’t measure up. This is showing to be a questionable strategy due to measurement bias. To make the most of loss, the perspective of loss needs to be applied to strategic and tactical activities, not just deliverables and outcomes.


Finally, whether it is assembling a diverse population, conducting multiple experiments or making adjustments by losing those things that don’t work, it all takes time. On a biologic scale it can take DNA millions of years to evolve or with some organisms, like viruses, the process can happen seemingly in real-time. With people’s behavior, the process usually takes longer than you think it should. The complex dynamics of multi-dimensional interactions can be time consuming to understand and frustratingly slow to change. But, change is necessary to grow and thrive.


Now for some good news. With a recognition that change is not just a good thing, it’s a requirement, and adopting a mindset to frame issues and outcomes using an adaptive leader’s perspective, it becomes possible to accelerate or truncate the change process. That’s right, faster change or no change at all.

If you start to include adaptive leadership notions of diversity, experimentation, loss, and time into your thinking, planning and executing, you automatically follow the best model we have for successfully using evolutionary concepts; managing how things change.

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