Shaping the Adaptive Organization: 
Landscapes, Learning, and Leadership in Volatile Times
by William E. Fulmer

"The Survival of the Fittest" applies to organisms and organizations. Shaping the Adaptive Organization uses the lessons of biology to show business leaders how to survive in today's rugged business environment - where constant and rapid change requires companies to constantly, rapidly adapt.

For business leaders struggling to keep their companies lean, innovative, and competitive, the situation today is marked most of all by uncertainty. The economic world is growing more and more unpredictable and chaotic. And to make sense of it, business thinkers are turning to the realm of science - especially chaos theory, complexity theory, and quantum physics - for compelling, sometimes even startling, analogies.

In his book, Shaping the Adaptive Organization: Landscapes, Learning, and Leadership in Volatile Times (AMACOM), Dr. William E. Fulmer, a respected educator at the Harvard Business School, takes a fresh, intriguing approach by turning to biological models - and especially to complex adaptive systems - to explain the turbulent nature of business today.

Drawing on the groundbreaking work of scientists like Charles Darwin, Stuart Kauffman, and Murray Gell-Mann, Fulmer clearly explains the nature of complex adaptive systems, which are nonlinear, and where simple cause-and-effect outcomes are rendered useless. His analysis gives readers a broader perspective of their world, as well as the ability to cope with the unexpected rather than trying to control the future.

Shaping the Adaptive Organization challenges readers to open their eyes to new frameworks for understanding what's really happening out there. "The business world is full of examples of successful leaders who saw their world differently from their competitors," says Fulmer. "For example, some view the emergence of the Internet as a threat to their business, while others see it as a great opportunity. In an earlier generation, when most movie studios resisted television, Walt Disney embraced it."

And Fulmer's biological framework is not only more comprehensible than other books drawing on the sciences, but is also more practical. That's because it provides answers on how to develop an adaptive organization - one that can survive and grow, even in a constantly changing environment. The book's concepts and strategies look at:

  • Landscape. What is your business environment? Is it rugged or flat? And how fit is an organization to navigate it? Understanding the landscape, and a company's changing role within it, is the first step to rethinking critical strategies.
  • Learning. Companies that successfully create an adaptive culture are those that not only encourage individual learning but encourage sharing it. Further, by considering some of the adaptive concepts introduced here, a company can adjust its very structure in order to leverage learning and respond faster to changing market conditions.
  • Leadership. Managing an adaptive company requires nontraditional vision and skills. Paying special attention to the distinct needs of startups versus established companies, Dr. Fulmer shows executives how to meet the challenges of complexity and create a resilient organization.

In addition, Shaping the Adaptive Organization is packed with real-life examples from companies that are operating in high-speed, rapidly changing environments - particularly those from the technology sector, where, as eBay executive Gary Bengier says, "companies move about ten times faster than normal companies, and Internet companies move about ten times faster than that." These powerful, eye-opening examples show how adaptive companies are coping, as well as how successful businesses can quickly find themselves in serious trouble.

Organizations, like organisms, have to keep evolving if they are to survive. And each change in the landscape brings the process to that dire junction: adapt or die. This insightful, innovative book will show senior executives and serious business readers how to prosper in this increasingly complex and unpredictable world.

William E. Fulmer is a senior fellow and senior vice president of the Executive Development Center of the Harvard Business School, where he also directs the Service Management Initiative. Dr. Fulmer has served on the faculties of George Mason University, The College of William and Mary, the University of Virginia, and the University of Alabama. The author of several books and monographs, he has had articles published in the Harvard Business Review, California Management Review, Business Horizons, and other prestigious journals. He teaches in executive development programs around the world and has consulted to many corporations and public agencies. Dr. Fulmer, who divides his time between Boston, MA, and Stafford, VA, is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania (Ph.D. and MA degrees) and Florida State University (MBA).
Shaping the Adaptive Organization
Landscapes, Learning, and Leadership in Volatile Times
by William E. Fulmer
AMACOM, 2000.

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