Adaptive Leadership


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Leading an agile enterprise requires understanding agility from a strategic business perspective and how practices like continuous design and delivery and a mindset of sustainable agility combine to create highly responsive and value-driven IT organizations.



Adaptive leadership is two dimensional: Being Agile and Doing Agile. It is about exploring those activities that an agile leader or executive must "do," starting with four key levers for change: "Do Less," "Speed-to-Value," "Quality," and "Engage/Inspire." Next, the focus will be on how to "Be" agile by being adaptive, being riders of paradox, exploring, and adopting a facilitative leadership style.


Adaptation is the process of continuous change in contrast to the periodic discrete change process found in many organizations. The difference between beginner and expert skiers provides an analogy. The beginner traverses the slope until he or she encounters the trees at the edge. For skiers, trees provide a significant incentive to change (turn). However, the expert skier is always changing, always turning, always on edge, always adapting to the challenge down the hill. The beginning skier is more like a traditional organization, utilizing existing practices until the threat (or actuality) of encountering trees is so great it has to change. Adaptive organizations, like advanced skiers, treat continuous change as the norm—and their practices reflect that actuality.

Adaptive Leadership–Continuous Change

Adaptive change is more graceful because it flows from all levels of an organization. Historically, however, change has been imposed in a top-down manner. From Newtonian determinism came Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management first published in 1916, which, in turn, spawned an almost slavish focus on process and workflow. Early science and early warfare lay the foundations for a command-and-control management philosophy: The manager knows the objective and commands the troops to conquer the objective. Once the command is given, the manager monitors progress and controls the outcome. This approach worked well as long as the objective to be conquered did not move around much, and as long as the organization existed in a more predictable world.

Dimensions of Adaptive Leadership

Doing Agile requires leaders to understand strategic agility from a business perspective as well as specific principles and practices to help build Agile organizations that can weather business turbulence. Agile leaders should use the following execution levers to achieve business goals of responsiveness (agility), profitability, market share and customer satisfaction.

The second dimension of adaptive leadership is “Being Agile”, which is based on values and principles, requires leaders to realize how practices like continuous delivery and a mind set of sustainable agility combine to create highly responsive IT organizations.

Adaptive Leadership Behaviors

Adaptive leadership behaviors are different from the traditional leadership ones. A traditional manager focuses on following the plan with minimal changes, whereas an agile leader focuses on adapting successfully to inevitable changes. Jim also mentioned other agile leadership characteristics like being adaptable versus predictable. Agile leaders also follow an Envision-Explore approach rather than a Plan-Do approach. They are facilitative in nature and encourage a collaborative engagement among the agile team members. He said that self-organizing doesn't mean anarchy and adaptive leadership doesn't mean no leadership. As a leader, it's ok to be wrong but it's not ok to be uncertain.

Adaptive Leadership: Accelerating Organizational Agility

88% of executives cite organizational agility as key to global success.

In this excerpt of a presentation to ThoughtWorks customers in the UK earlier this year, Cyndi Mitchell, Managing Director of ThoughtWorks Studios, explores the changing role of IT in the next 3-5 years, and explains how leaders can use Continuous Delivery to protect and increase revenue. Cyndi discusses the different leadership competencies and capabilities that will be required in order to be successful in doing and being Agile.


The first focus of collaboration is on the work group and interpersonal relationships so as to create emergent order and thereby adapt locally. The second focus is on the cultural and structural aspects of collaboration necessary to create emergent order more globally—to scale adaptive development up to larger complex projects. The structure of an organization’s collaborative network has significant impact on its ability to produce emergent results and ultimately on its very ability to adapt. Adaptive Leadership focuses on creating the cultural environment in which adaptation and collaboration can thrive, and on creating a collaborative structure in which multiple groups can interact effectively.


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