Adaptability: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: October 4th, 2012 by bobmorris

Adaptability: The Art of Winning in an Age of Uncertainty
Max Mckeown
KoganPage (2012)

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin

Max Mckeown presents his material within a three-part framework that focuses on these strategic objectives: How to recognize the need to adapt? (Chapters 1-6), How to understand necessary adaptation? (Chapters 12-17), and How to adapt as necessary? (Chapters 12-17). As Abraham Maslow suggests with his “Hierarchy of Needs” (usually portrayed in the form of a pyramid), man must first survive before giving thought to security; and only when secure can man consider “self-actualization” (i.e. personal fulfillment). Mckeown’s primary objective in this book is to help his reader to understand when, how, and why to adapt “faster and smarter than the [given] situation changes.” He accepts Darwin’s concept of natural selection but asserts, “Adapt or die is not the only choice. In the future, you can try to maintain what you already have, or you can attempt to transcend the constraints of your situation. We’re part of a long chain of adaptive moves. Each move has changed the circumstances of our ancestors, until we arrived.” How to learn how to adapt?

In response to that question, Mckeown provides an abundance of information, insights, and counsel. Here are a few of the dozens of passages in his narrative that caught my eye:

o Why all failure is failure to adapt
o How to embrace “unacceptable wisdom”
o Why stability is a “dangerous illusion”
o Why learning fast is better than failing fast
o How to think better together
o Why hierarchy is “fossil fuel”
o How to “get your ambition on”

Mckeown is well-aware of the importance of survival to countless individuals as well as to countless organizations and even countries throughout the world. However, his hope — one that I share — is that those who read this book will aspire to accomplishing more, much more than survival.

The key, in my opinion, is first developing and then applying a mindset that recognizes the need for adaptation, understands what adaptation requires, and possesses imagination and (yes) courage sufficient to separate thinking repetition — perpetuating of what James O’Toole so aptly characterizes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom” — from adaptive iteration. Change may be inevitable but progress is not. The need to adapt is inevitable but being able to do that effectively is not.

I introduced this brief commentary with a statement by Charles Darwin and now conclude it with another: “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

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