All About Adaptation

Costa Michailidis -

There's a last but not least quality to the style of innovation exemplified by the improviser. Perhaps this is because improvisation, or adaptation, comes so late in most formal innovation processes, and yet adaptation seems to encompass some of the most essential elements of innovation.

camouflage in the Sherlock Holmes film

Urban camouflaging by Robert Downey Jr. in Warner Brother's Sherlock Holmes, A Game Of Shadows.

A quick note on definitions before we dive in.

We'll use the terms improvisation and adaptation interchangeably for this article. There are some interesting nuances, the former being focused on reacting to reality extemporaneously and the latter with making modifications to suit reality. For this article, the minor differences won't be our chief concern.

The important thing is that we're talking about innovation that takes place during the implementation phase of an innovation process.

Once a project or pilot is already in motion, what does an innovative project leader do to deal with problems that come up?

Namely, they improvise and/or adapt.

Yes... And...

I sat there rolling in laughter watching my brother and friends pretend theatrically to be on the moon, while Russ sounded a buzzer rejecting their lines of dialog, until they produced one that elicited laughter from the audience.

The game, affectionately called Ding that day, because we forgot the real title(?) is an improv comedy exercise in which participants act out a scenario (example: Walking on the moon), and the host hits a buzzer prompting the participant who had just spoken to retract their most recent line of dialog and produce a new one, sometimes repeatedly, to the frustration of the improviser and joy of the audience.

I promise we'll record it next time. It is 🤣 hilarious.

There's one rule in improv comedy: You must accept the reality that is handed to you and build on it.

Much like innovation.

Much like life.

This is often summarized by the phrase Yes... And...

There's a real magic in the way improvisation mimics the kind of innovation that nature performs, and we'll return to that at the end of the article. First, let's explain how, Yes... And... works.

Accept Reality

The, Yes part of, Yes... And... is about accepting the reality that is handed to you.

In improv, that means if someone introduces you as Green Beard, the god of vegetables who can sprout any plant from his beard, you have to play the part.

In innovation, it means you have to accept reality no matter how much it may differ from your expected reality.

We all know what it's like to get married to an idea, either from personal experience or by seeing someone else in state in which they are unable to accept criticism or alternatives. They think their idea is perfect as is, and reject anything that counters. They can't seem to budge an inch.

And when they do face resistance...

People just don't understand my idea.

The world isn't ready for it.

Oh boy.

Sometimes it's not an obsessive attachment to an idea that's the problem, but a militaristic adherence to a plan.

Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.- Mike Tyson

Thanks, Mike.

The problems with a lack of adaptibility or improvisation are numerous. Let's state a few for the record:

  • You can't take advantage of opportunities that present themselves.
  • You can't properly assess threats.
  • You may forgo measuring risks or measure risks inaccurately.
  • You can disenfranchise your team, mistreat customers, or cause all kinds of relational problems.
  • You can misallocate resources very badly.
  • You can end up stuck in sunk cost bias and continue to squander time, energy, and resources.
  • You prevent learning. Reality is a potent teacher.

The great innovators of history and today accept reality. They don't fear the judgement of the market, they embrace it. It is one of their greatest allies.

Build On It

The, And... part of, Yes... And... is about building on the present reality.

What kind of plants would you grow on your chin if you were Green Beard, the god of vegetables?

Black radishes?

Mm... interesting choice!

The wonderful thing about accepting reality is that you get to build on it. There are a hundred proverbs of wisdom for this.

When life gives you lemons? Make Lemonade.

We are not defined by what happens to us, but by what we choose to do about it.

Innovators deploy an unbelievable amount of creativity and imagination when faced with adversity. The Wright brothers invented the wind tunnel, as a reaction to faulty data from another flight enthusiast they were relying on. The microwave was an accident. Penicillin, post-it notes, champagne, even chocolate chip cookies were the result of adaptation; in the moment, reworking, ingenious responses to an unexpected reality.

Insight & Reasoning

In improv comedy performances, it is likely that the parts of the brain associated with sponteanous insight are more active than the parts of the brain involved in measured reasoning. Considering how fast improv happens, it's unlikely the improvisers are consciously weighing the humor in five or ten alternative jokes before they deliver one.

(More on insight at minute 11:00 of the Creative Brain documentary.)

In innovation projects, insight can be tremendously useful, and so can measured reasoning.

If a problem that arises for your project doesn't have imminent implications that need to be acted on in mere seconds, you can utilize measured reasoning as well as spontaneous insight, incubation, brainstorming, and many other approaches to pivot or adapt to meet the challenge at hand.

Here's a few things to keep in mind when your implementing a plan and reality hands you something unexpected.

In case of emergency, break glass.

First, if it's a red alert level crisis, and you need to act right away, act right away. Don't freeze, don't stall. Trust your training and your instincts, and follow any official crisis procedures.

With that caveat, let's go over some generic tactis for situations where you have at least a few days to adapt to unexpected changes.

Start with what's good.

Start by listing what's good about the unexpected reality. What benefits does this bring that we didn't have or didn't notice before? What new opportunities does this present?

Check for any changes to stakeholders.

Are there any new people, groups, or entities that this might affect? If so, are they assisters, resisters, or neutral to your innovation project?

List concerns and enumerate potential overcomes.

Make a list of any concerns you have and enumerate potential overcomes for each concern. You can also rank concerns before spending time trying to address them.

Ask lots of else questions.

  • What else can we do?
  • What else might go wrong?
  • Who else might we involve?
  • How else might we look at this?

Try and take on different perspectives. In nearly any situation there is always a different way to look at things that can bring new opportunities and risks into view.

This is the kind of latteral thinking that's valuable across the innovation process. The same skills you deployed to come up with lots of ideas during the idea development phase of your process or to develop a comprehensive plan in your planning phase can be used now to adapt to unexpected realities.

Now, as you grasp the new reality, and adapt your operation, you'll have onboarded valuable new learning and insights, and made important new improvements.

These benefits of adaptation, of course, come at a cost.

It's wise and prudent to budget for the unknown, and the more ambitious the innovation project, the bigger the budget for adapting to those inevitable unknowns.

Much Like Nature

Nature can be thought of as an engine of innovation.

In biology, the evolutionary process performs both the divergent task of generating a large number of possibilities, and the convergent task of selecting the most suitable options for the current conditions. Sexual reproduction, mutation, and other processes create novel genotypes and resulting phenotypes, and environmental selection pressures allow only the most fit to remain. Rinse and repeat.

It's not so different for innovation.

Artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, and others create a variety of products and services for the marketplace (or the marketplace of ideas), and forces in the market select those products, services, and ideas that suit the day, forgoing the rest. Then, we do the same dance the next day, and so on.

The improv comic does all that in her mind at lightning speed, taking her audience on an entirely spontaneous journey of joy and laughter.

Great innovators are not unlike the improv comics, accepting reality, building on it, and making meaningful change in the world.