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Individual, structural and social evolution – the three levers for creating an adaptive organisation

Adaptive Cultures

A simple pop quiz to start this week’s article. When you have been through a transformational change in an organisation, where has your organisation focused its attention:

a. Structural evolution – transforming processes, systems, structures and planning cycles that enhance ways of working and better enable the organisation’s aspirations

b. Social evolution – transforming ways of working, communication channels and forums to enable better dialogue and collaboration across the organisation. Building ongoing development, innovation and creativity into the DNA of the organisation

c. Individual evolution – building deeper awareness and insight at an individual level to increase responsibility, accountability and capacity to be responsive and adaptive

d. A combination of two of the above

e. All three – Structural, social and individual evolution

How successful was the cultural transformation? From your answer above, were there any missing ingredients and what was the consequence of this?

From the interviews and case studies we have conducted across a wide range of organisations and our own experiences working with culture, we believe that engaging all three (a, b and c) is the only viable option to be able to achieve sustainable cultural evolution.

What we have observed happens in most instances, is a prioritisation of one or at best two of the three levers for creating adaptive organisations. When this occurs, like a tripod balancing on only one or two legs, the aspirations of the organisation to transform, inevitably falls over.

To explore this further, let’s look at two case studies of organisations that had one or more of these elements missing and the consequences:

Case study 1

In one organisation, the culture work focused primarily on individual evolution.

Deep personal change in the thinking and behaviours of individuals was prioritised and achieved, however not sufficiently brought back into team operations and structures. Some members of the executive team and the Board didn’t buy into the program of work and therefore social transformation through the organisation was stifled, or only successful in pockets.

Whilst individuals in the organisation DID experience profound personal transformation and many still talk about it (ten years later), the Board lost patience and brought in a new CEO who dismantled almost all aspects of the program.

Case study 2

In this organisation, there was a strong emphasis on new structures and processes which focused on people working better together, across silos.  There was little focus on personal growth and development or the individual learning required to transcend personal desires for the good of the greater whole.

The organisation did, in some cases achieve momentum in the generation of new ideas and was also successful in reducing inefficiencies and duplication.

However, there was continued widespread inability to deal with the new ways of working, old mindsets remained and the new ways of working created high levels of anxiety and resistance.

The management team became very frustrated with people “ignoring the changes necessary” and “not moving fast enough”.  The overall experience was the creation of widespread cynicism about change. The few successful incremental changes gradually disappeared as old ways re-emerged.

A summary based on our experiences of cultural transformation is that:

  • For cultural evolution to gain sufficient and sustainable momentum, the systems, structures and processes need to symbolise the direction the organisation is heading, and hence need to evolve to enable cultural transformation
  • These changes won’t make a difference unless people engage with each other and work together in a way that enables the new culture to emerge, and support each other through the transformation. Deeper levels of external orientation need to guide collaboration around meaningful, purposeful work
  • People will not be able to navigate and co-create the new culture or work in a different way (regardless of systems and process changes) unless they can clearly see themselves as an instrument for change. This requires deeper levels of personal awareness of their own blind spots and default reactions and behaviours as well as the tools to transform these.  In our experience, the depth of the inner work required of leaders is often underestimated and unless leaders are able to transcend ego-centric worldviews, true transformation is severely impeded.

Considering any culture or transformation initiative you are engaged in, how are you ensuring that all three of these levers are being worked with?

For any organisation to deliver on its strategies and aspirations requires a culture where people embody the behaviours and mindsets that enable the organisation’s aspirations.

These will be different for different organisations, depending on the complexity of their markets and level of disruption they are facing into.  See stages of evolution article. Our next article will explore how you can target the social, structural and individual initiatives to fit the purpose of your organisation’s transformation.


If any of this article resonates with you and you can observe some of these challenges in your organisation, then you may be interested in the Adaptive Cultures Community. The community of practitioners are actively exploring many of these themes within their sphere of organisations, and actively developing ways and means to respond and adapt.

The next Adaptive Cultures Practitioner Development Program starts in February 2022. This program is for change leaders and culture practitioners who would like to become more adaptive and courageous in guiding cultural evolution. The program supports participants with the knowledge, skills, frameworks and personal development required to become world class culture and change practitioners. Register your interest here.

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