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Transforming to Achieve the Adaptation Advantage

In my last blog post – MIT Professors Unveil a Proposal for an Affordable New Educational Institution – I described how the new model proposed by a team of MIT professors addressed the four dimensions of transformation described in our book Transforming for Turbulent Times. I also outlined how these four dimensions could be implemented through an eight-step process called Transformation at a Glance.

The table below takes the conversation a step further. It describes how these four dimensions of transformation can be utilized to envision the changes in culture and capacity necessary to chart a path toward Heather McGowan’s goal of achieving the “adaptation advantage.” This advantage, we believe, is necessary for higher education to succeed in these turbulent times that feature dramatically changing technology, marketplace, and social factors.

Transforming to Achieve the Adaptation Advantage

At her plenary address at the SCUP 2022 conference, Heather McGowan described the imperative for all organizations to achieve levels of adaptability that have been unthinkable in the past. In her book, The Adaptation Advantage, she presents these cascading set of breakthroughs required to establish the adaptation advantage:

  • Getting comfortable with accelerated adaptation;

  • Letting go of existing occupational identities and learning fast to thrive;

  • Escaping the trap of the question, “What do you do for a living?”

  • Finding the courage to get rid of existing occupational identity;

  • Learning fast: Why an agile learning mindset is essential;

  • Developing creativity, empathy, and other uniquely human capabilities;

  • Learning to lead during times of continuous change: modeling vulnerabilities, learning from failure;

  • Becoming an adaptive organization: Creating the capacity to change at the speed of technology, the market, and social evolution.

In McGowan’s view:

  1. The most important tool of an adaptable enterprise is culture. Culture is the context in which the enterprise exercises and expands its capacity to learn, grow, and identify and capture new opportunities.

  2. To adapt adeptly and continuously, organizational leaders must focus on inputs (culture and capacity) rather than outputs (brand, products, and services).

  3. Coupling culture and capacity is key to becoming a scalable learning organization and gaining the adaptation advantage.

At this point in time, McGowan’s perspectives are especially critical to higher education. Many institutions emerged from the COVID years in better financial condition than expected – especially research universities and highly selective institutions. But discontent, turnover, and retirements among faculty and staff have grown. Many institutional leaders, faculty, and staff are exhausted by coping with Covid and imagine returning to some version of “the old normal.” This is wishful thinking, even for the most successful. Instead, leaders must broadly engage faculty and staff in rethinking their roles, changing culture, and building the capacity to grow by becoming more adaptive. Institutional leaders, faculty, and staff must co-create visions for new, evolving roles that will be meaningful, rewarding, and sustainable.

In a future blog on this topic, my colleagues Linda Baer, Colleen Carmean, and Tim Gilmour will offer a range of perspectives on how to broadly engage faculty and staff in reimagining their traditional roles in higher education. The aim will be for faculty and staff to participate in defining and bringing about the changes in vision, culture, and capacity needed to create adaptive enterprises. Places that can provide faculty and staff with meaningful, rewarding careers.


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