Adaptive strain, adaptive change

Sep 18 2017 by Peter Vajda Print This Article

We are surrounded by change. It is all around us - and all the more so because the assumptions that underline how we operate in the workplace are becoming outdated. We are arriving at a critical point in how we conduct business, and whether we like it or not, transformation is necessary.

In a workplace culture that is increasingly characterized by instability, uncertainty and limited resources, our dependence on technology-driven growth, obsession with efficiency, and adherence to mechanistic organizational design are all becoming increasingly untenable.

Unfortunately, the call for true change and transformation is either falling on deaf ears or being resisted by those who prefer the status quo. Many business leaders are either waiting for external forces to create change or are content simply to reinforce what isn't working.

Transactions and Transformation

Real and positive change involves both transactional and transformational elements. The transactional deals with processes and outcomes. The transformational deals with the human element - people. Most businesses focus on the former - it's much easier than dealing with people.

One of the biggest challenges facing business today is how to merge these two aspects in a way that fosters a conscious and healthy redesign of business and eases the tension between the status quo and an emerging future that encourages people to contribute and prosper. In future, successful organizations will reject mechanistic processes, procedures and outcomes and operate more like ecosystems, adopting a multidisciplinary approach to work that meets at the intersection of physics, quantum physics, psychology, biology, and neuroscience.

Adaptive strain and adaptive change

Many businesses today are feeling the effects of "adaptive strain" as a combination of conflicting internal and external forces leads to destabilization. In nature, this destabilization is resolved through a process of "adaptive change". Living move from equilibrium to stress and strain, then adapt and move to another state of equilibrium. Living systems also thrive on their interconnectedness and institute course corrections as necessary to produce resiliency.

In human organizations and systems, adaptive change is anything but natural and fluid. Yet the only way businesses will survive is if/when their human custodians develop a clear vision for their future and a conscious awareness that adaptive change is a necessity.

Many are unable or unwilling to create that vision or hold that awareness. And when organizations lack both a vision and awareness, atrophy sets in. Transactions break down and the "transformational" aspect doesn't even get a look-in.

The "transformational" aspect of adaptive change focuses on people and on the psychological, emotional, and spiritual effects that change has on individuals. This is the toughest area of change for most organizations, but the one that often determines its success or failure. It's the "irritant", like the grain of sand in the oyster's shell that produces a pearl.

But until or unless the transactional and transformational aspects of change work in tandem, true change is almost impossible.

But let's also be quite clear here: people are often the greatest barrier to change. There is no automatic, natural adaptation that leads to resiliency and equilibrium. When destabilization occurs in business, fear and resistance often take over and undermine change. People are afraid of the unknown - the future - and so dig in their heels and cling on to the status quo. The result is a sense of disorientation and ambiguity, a fear of loss.

The belly of the beast

In business, just as in life, it is often the case that real change and transformation can only happen after hitting "rock bottom". From here, the journey through the "belly of the beast" takes you to a place of deep awareness and response, where intuition, creativity and understanding arise - over time - to force the move from strain to transformation.

This journey is neither quick or easy. One must remain in the "belly" long enough to experience and metabolize the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual chaos that exists. There is no quick fix. Many businesses, however, try a microwave approach and before long find they are stuck again in the same status quo, the same uncertainly, the same apathy and cynicism: in other words, "business as usual".

So for an organization no less than an individual, it is only in the belly, with its turbulence and disengagement, that it can discover the new insights and strategies that lead to true re-design. Only here can a business truly grasp the nature of the interconnectedness between the transactional and transformational aspects of change - between procedures and people, between function/process and the psychological/ideological. Here is where new ways of doing and being arise.

Team dynamics

Another prerequisite for true change and transformation is that leaders and managers acknowledge and address their own failings and dysfunctionality - behaviors such as the avoidance of risk-taking, feeling a lack of confidence and/or helplessness, being disengaged, being untrusting and untrustworthy, refusing to delegate, being fearful of change and ambiguity and needing to be in control. All of these sabotage the organization by undermining team cohesion, morale, wellbeing and performance.

This isn't a question of process, but one of personal style; it's not about "business systems" but rather "personal systems". Yet it is a vital stage in the process that leaders and managers

undertake of a conscious process of self-reflection so they can genuinely support their organizations to move forward.


  • Are you and your organization facing the strain of adapting to turbulent times? How do you feel you are doing?
  • Does your organization focus equally on the transactional and transformational aspects of change? If not, why not?
  • Are you and your organization using outmoded models and tools to adapt to change?
  • Would you describe your organization as a living system or a mechanistic one? Why?
  • Have you ever experienced the journey through "the belly of the beast?" What is/was that like for you?
  • How do you deal with an uncertain future?
  • Doyou hang on to your beliefs, worldviews, stories and assumptions at all costs?
  • What was strain like for you and your family when you were growing up? How did you cope?
  • How do you deal with change? Honestly!

But adaptive change is something that concerns everyone. If an organization is an eco-system, change affects every part of it and requires the engagement of every individual. If they are caught up in resistance, denial defensiveness and fear, change cannot happen.

The road to adaptive change begins with each individual, in small, incremental ways - changing one's mind, one's assumptions, one's worldview, making a decision, creating a strategy, etc. It's here that individuals must willingly choose to "look inside", to explore what threatens their self-esteem, their confidence, and face their fears head-on. It's here that one can eliminate self-destructive and self-sabotaging patterns of behavior and begin to engage in new behaviors that are both self-supporting and supportive of the organization.

When individuals refuse to embark on this inner journey and become focused solely on the mechanical and transactional aspects of their organization, they often get stuck in a cycle of failed change. They prefer the status quo, are non-trusting of others, fear ambiguity, and loss of control. They actually choose failure - preferring the devil they know - because it feeds their false sense of security.

So only when individuals choose to take the journey, consciously looking at how their own behaviors work against change, can they begin to adapt and engage in the creative and innovative ways of doing and being that reduce the bumps in the road of change. In this way change becomes a "competency" of both individuals and the organization, where the organization transforms from a mechanistic entity into a truly living organism.

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About The Author

Peter Vajda
Peter Vajda

Peter G. Vajda, Ph.D, C.P.C. is a seminar leader, workshop facilitator and speaker. He is the founding partner of True North Partnering, an Atlanta-based company that supports conscious living through coaching, counselling and facilitating.