These days, adaptability is a must-have trait. Here’s how to spot it — and increase it

Apr 20, 2020 /

This post is part of TED’s “How to Be a Better Human” series, each of which contains a piece of helpful advice from people in the TED community; browse through all the posts here.

How do you deal with immense change?

Be honest with yourself: Are you someone who embraces it and evolves with it? Or, do you find tend to retreat and stick with what you know?

In our tumultuous times, adaptability — defined as “how well a person reacts to the inevitability of change,” according to venture investor and writer Natalie Fratto in a TED Talk — is a must-have trait. Organizations want team members who can take on new responsibilities and acquire new skills as needed in an uncertain world. Not only is it a quality that you should learn to spot so you can hire and retain the right people, but it’s also one that you should build so you can remain indispensable and employable.

In a typical year, Fratto meets with hundreds of start-up founders and she must determine in the course of a brief conversation whether she wants to invest in them and their company. Adaptability is a characteristic that distinguishes many of those who go on to succeed, according to Fratto.

Adaptability is not just useful in the tech world, but for everyone else, too. “Each of us, as individuals, groups, corporations and even governments are being forced to grapple with more change than ever before in human history,” she points out. And there’s good news ahead: “Adaptability is not fixed,” she adds, noting that everyone has the capacity to measure, test, and improve their ability to adapt to new circumstances.

Here’s her advice on how to assess adaptability in others — and how you can boost it in yourself.

When interviewing people, try asking “what if” questions

Fratto says these force a person to picture multiple possible versions of the future and make their decisions accordingly. Some examples of these questions might be “What if your main revenue stream were to dry up overnight?” or “What if a heat wave prevented customers from visiting your store?” Fratto gets a sense of a candidate’s adaptability based on how many scenarios they’re able to come up with and how strong their vision is.

“People often ask too many questions in an interview,” says Fratto in an interview with TED, “but it’s better to ask four questions and then go deeper” with follow-up questions. One example of a question could be “Describe a difficult change that you’ve recently undergone at work” and a natural follow-up might be: “What would have happened if [different change X] had occurred instead?” This forces the interviewee to consider an alternative past and future.

“Tell me about a time when you were wrong” is another interview question that can yield insights. You can follow it up with “What is the most compelling argument of those who disagreed with you?” Fratto says you can often tell if people are willing to change their minds — and therefore are more adaptable — by asking them to honestly share a time when they believed they were wrong, not when others perceived they were wrong.

Instead of learning, look for signs of “unlearning”

“Unlearning” is another important sign of adaptability, according to Fratto. “Active unlearners seek to challenge what they presume to already know and instead override that data with new information,” she says.

One physical example of unlearning can be found on the ski slopes, where beginner downhill skiers are taught the “pizza” method. When you’re at the top of a hill, you point your skis toward one another — like the tip of a slice of pizza — and holding that shape will stop you from sliding down. But as you grow more comfortable, you can’t become a great skier with the pizza method; you must unlearn it. It’s necessary only to use for a short time until you get comfortable enough to take risks.

While it’s difficult to unlearn certain skills that have been drilled into our brains, it is possible to do so — and embrace change, too. “A person can also unlearn by taking a new vantage point or shifting to another perspective,” says Fratto. Layering on additional learnings can also show a person’s adaptability. “Playing at the intersection of areas where you’re not an expert can together build a new set of skills as a building block,” she adds.

This mindset is especially useful for people who are looking for a new job. If you’re seeking to switch industries, you can embrace unlearning or adjacent learning to find a new position in a different field. By looking at the individual components and pieces of your job — instead of the overall title or position — you can see where your skills might be applied in a different environment. Then, ask yourself, “In which industry is this one skill being underutilized?” and you can move forward, bringing your individual pieces of expertise with you.

Look for signs of exploration

An exploratory mindset can yield clear benefits. As an example, Fratto says after she moved to a new neighborhood, she needed to find a grocery store. She walked out of her apartment, arbitrarily turned left, and found a store a few blocks away which she began to frequent. A few months later, she turned right and stumbled into a grocery store not much further away with a better produce section. In an effort to be efficient, she had stuck with the same-old — and had missed out on something better.

How often do you do that in your own life?

“The path becomes so much more interesting when you wander,” says Fratto. “It’s better to explore and find ways to break habits that you already have, whether that’s trying to watch a movie in a different language, cooking a different cuisine, or walking an alternate route,” she says. These seemingly minor changes allow for crucial vantage point shifts and create the ability for unlearning to happen.

A person’s adaptability isn’t fixed — you can always improve it

“I believe all of us have a strong inherent capability to react to change differently,” says Fratto. “However, adaptability has to be proactive, not reactive. We have to seek it out, exercise it and flex it like a muscle.”

So how can we become more adaptable?

First, play at the intersections. Let’s say you’re an expert at marketing, for instance. If you can also make yourself knowledgeable about podcasts, you can become the translator between these teams. Seek out opportunities to bridge existing gaps at your organization.

Second, occasionally take a devil’s-advocate role at work. In some situations — stay away from high-stakes ones — you might adopt the position of respectful dissenter. This will allow you, your boss and your teammates see things from the other side. This strategy can also help you from getting too attached to your personal ideas and views.

Fratto says in the tech world, there’s an oft-repeated motto “I like leaders who have strong opinions, weakly held.” An important component of adaptability is having the ability to form a strong opinion but release it when new information becomes available and makes it obsolete.

Third, keep a failure resume or log. “It’s helpful to write down the times where you were wrong, changed your mind, or made mistakes,” says Fratto. While many of us view these things with shame or embarrassment, you can start to see them in a positive light — as steps you’ve taken on your professional journey — and learn from them instead.

Watch her TED Talk now: