Looking at Adaptability Through Problems, Opportunities & Situations

My wife and I love to travel. It's common for us to arrive in a strange country or new city with little more than hotel reservations for the first and last nights of our trip. We approach travel by doing extensive planning, but making few plans. Rather than being pinned down to a single, specific timeline or route, we prefer to stay as flexible, adaptable as possible. 

There seems to be a general feeling in complex adaptive systems community that complexity is a negative thing. Maybe I am biased in my sensing this, as I do associate with a narrow sub-culture in the greater complex adaptive system community. Maybe I am reading it all wrong. But I perceive a theme where adaptability relates to a preoccupation with failure, pessimism, and hardship. 

Adaptability seems to be often discussed in the context of how to handle problems or hardships. The bulk of conversations revolve around making adjustments when solutions or interventions aren't "working" and being resilient in the face of adversity. In some ways, it's as if adaptability is overly focused on minimizing bad things and getting back up on your feet after being knocked down. 

I also sense that society sneers at complexity. It's as if we look down upon things that cannot be reduced to a linear, simple, solvable relationship. It's as if we are predisposed to structure, design controls, and establish rules to ensure predictability, comfort, and authority. Complexity is even, at times, seen as something that needs to be merely survived. Things that cannot be influenced, known, or calculated give us discomfort and a feeling of inadequacy. 

This view of complexity and adaptability does their natures and theories a disservice. 

One of the many traits of complex environments is a natural tension between variables or actors. If we look at a sporting context, a situation that is deemed good for one team or competitor is likely bad for the opponent. In that specific sense, complexity is neutral; it's wholly a matter of perspective. (To be fair, not all situations of complexity are "zero sum" games. But that's something for another time.) 

Adaptability equally applies to positive aspects of life and work. It's about remaining open to multiple good options. It nudges us to probe a situation to find out the best (or better, or even just good) course of action, before having to blindly commit prematurely. It's about stacking-the-deck ahead of time to capture the best of what life has to offer. It's about seizing, exploiting, and embracing our curiosity, a lack of structure, and inability to control. Adaptability is living in and appreciating the moment. 

Complex adaptive systems are not negative or positive. They just are. Humans tend to gravitate towards a standardized, scientific, engineering approach to the world...when sometimes a creative, artistic, organic view is more appropriate. We must resist the urge to demand explanations and answers, promote definitive procedures, and expect that we can figure everything out. Expecting that we can control and know everything is unrealistic. And unhealthy.

We who study adaptability and complex systems should be more intentional in using positive, joyful, optimistic examples in our teachings. Because instead of merely minimizing bad, adaptability is equally about maximizing the good. It seems we've lost sight of that in our risk adverse climates.


Lou Hayes, Jr. is a police training unit supervisor in suburban Chicago. He studies human performance & decision-making, creativity, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. Follow Lou on Twitter at @LouHayesJr or on LinkedIn


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