The Big Picture: Boosting Your Organization’s Adaptive Capacity through Holistic Thinking

If you’ve been following this blog series, you should have a good understanding of what adaptive capacity is and how to measure it. But how do you help your organization become more adaptive? This is what I will be discussing over the next few posts.

Juan Carlos Eichholz opens part two of his book Adaptive Capacity with a famous quote from Aristotle: “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” As Eichholz explains, “When the focus is put on specific parts only, the big picture is lost and comprehension of the whole is limited. Taking a holistic view of their organizations is one of the main challenges executives face.”

But thinking holistically is exactly what leaders need to do if they want to boost their organization’s adaptive capacity. In order to do that, it’s important to understand the five organizational dimensions. They are:

  • Purpose
  • Strategy
  • Structure
  • Culture
  • Talent

Many executives try to improve performance by focusing on just one of these dimensions. This is a costly mistake. Each dimension overlaps with and affects the others; none of them can exist without the rest. Failing to see the forest for the trees wastes valuable time and resources. All of these areas must be examined and evaluated if you hope to improve adaptive capacity.

Eichholz uses the human body as a metaphor to show how these dimensions are interrelated. An organization’s purpose is its soul, its strategy is its brain, its structure is its skeleton, its culture is its blood, and its talent is its heart. By way of analogy, you wouldn’t try to get healthier by only focusing on a single part of your body, because we know that health is a product of many processes functioning together. We also recognize that when one part of the body isn’t working properly, the body as a whole suffers. A problem in the bones might lead to a less active lifestyle, which might negatively affect the heart and also cause depression, for example. Treatment would address the root cause—the bones—but it would also incorporate steps to alleviate the negative side effects that arose as a consequence.

If your organization is lacking in adaptive capacity, the problem may originate in just one of these five dimensions. However, treating the problem requires looking at how the organization as a whole is affected. For example, if your organization’s purpose is unclear, this is likely having a negative effect on company culture by reducing morale, limiting the talent you are able to attract, and interfering with your ability to develop an effective strategy.

Are you guilty of focusing too much on the parts and not enough on the whole? I’d love to hear from you. You can contact me via my website, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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