In the state of nature, resilience and adaptability are key traits for survival. Indeed, when Darwin said “survival of the fittest,” it did not mean the quickest, the strongest, or the smartest life forms; rather, it meant those most capable of adapting to their current environmental conditions.

And so too is this old evolutionary adage true for business. The most resilient and adaptable teams succeed more often than those rigid and unwilling to change, even if the latter boasts great talent. A new study from Johns Hopkins University confirms that resilience and the ability to pivot when necessary are essential to succeeding in business.

What is “resilience-in-action?”

Kathleen Sutcliffe, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg Distinguished Professor who specializes in organization theory, examined expedition racing teams, which traverse wilderness courses on land and sea. She found the most successful teams didn’t just weather the storm of extreme situations, but pivoted to meet the challenge and even improve upon what they had been doing.

“To the extent that they could maintain a shared but fluid and accurate picture of their situation, [such as] ‘where we are,’ ‘how we are doing,’ they were likely to take appropriate action,” Sutcliffe and co-author Michelle Barton wrote of the race participants. “In contrast, when teams lost touch with the reality of their context – either internally or externally – they were more likely to drift. They would enact behaviors that brought them into worse situations, for example, rushing past a turnoff or checkpoint, taking a wrong turn, … or pushing flagging teammates to the point of breakdown.”

Naturally, the researchers noted, these traits translate toward the business world, particularly, when it comes to the processes of “drift management” and “meaning management.”

Drift and Meaning Management

Drift and meaning management became key indicators for the overall performance of a given team. Those that are able to keep an eye out for drift and meaning – and respond in kind – are similarly often better positioned for success.

Drift management: Drift management means paying close attention to the lay of the land, as well as the physical and mental well-being of team members, and monitoring for any changes in conditions. In the business world, drift can be things like market changes, team member health and individual workloads. Managing these drifts may mean reallocating the burden to help a struggling team member recover, or re-positioning to team’s efforts to better address the real world conditions of a changing market.

Meaning management: Successful meaning management means cultivating the collective mindset that, through adversity, the team will reach a brighter future. This prevents team members from disengaging from the tasks at hand, and helps them show resilience in the face of a bad quarter or an economic downturn. In short, it means growing a culture that has faith in the team’s skill and endgame.

When the teams Sutcliffe and Barton studied failed to act in resilient ways, it not only failed to produce good outcomes, but also created increasing vulnerability and adversity.

“What teams did affected the conditions they found themselves in, and the conditions they were in affected what they did,” the researchers wrote. “The extent to which teams engaged with their context allowed them to align their actions with the reality of their context, make smart decisions and take appropriate action, leaving them generally better off.”

For the study, Sutcliffe and Barton conducted post-race interviews of about an hour with each of 103 athletes from 53 teams that took part in six expedition races lasting from one to three days. Sutcliffe and Barton gathered additional data by observing four of the races and reading race websites and logs.

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