The Dance of Mastery and Adaptation:
Continuous Growth Through Cycles of Renewal

by Dr. Dean Robb

Traditionally, executives and their companies have viewed the world from an older scientific viewpoint, seeing the world as rationally knowable, predictable, controllable and therefore possible to master. However, a newer, more accurate view of the world is that it is fundamentally complex, unpredictable, creative, evolutionary and not fully knowable--and therefore not controllable. The old operating mode of creating and executing a strategy on a fixed playing field has become nearly useless. The need for continuous mastery leads instead to business stagnation and possible extinction.

Business growth in today's complex, turbulent world is more akin to a continuous adaptive dance between "winning" and "losing," that is, being on top of your game and needing to create or learn a whole new game. Accepting and living with this vulnerability permits continuous business renewal and growth by managing value propositions and organizational change as a constant series of small "births, deaths and rebirths."

Let's see how all this plays out in real time.

Control Competencies

When a company is managed from the old mechanical paradigm, the modus operandi is control and defense. The underlying belief system (which may be outside of awareness) is that through the proper application of competencies, techniques and controls, success can be wrested from the environment. Where there is little recognition or acceptance of the inevitability of periods of adaptation, downward swings in business/financial results often trigger an increase in pressure and controls exerted on the workforce, to get better results--now! I call this the "Row Harder Syndrome." In other words, the reflexive response is to try harder and harder at the old game, rather than recognizing that it may be better to get ready to let go of the old game while there is still enough time to create a new game.

This reflexive behavior often results in a crisis of moderate to high severity, depending on the severity of internal defensiveness, control and denial. It can create times of massive scrambling, financial games and shenanigans, and extensive organizational retooling. If this old modus operandi is deeply embedded, it can lead to ongoing cycles of boom and bust, good times and crises. The problem is that it can also lead to extinction.

Managing the ongoing dance between mastery and adaptation requires recognition that each phase demands very different competencies. The chart here illustrates some of them.


The competencies for mastery and adaptation can be grouped into complementary pairs. Some examples:

  • Whereas mastery of repetitive tasks is supported by the capacity to focus on concrete details, changing the task structure is facilitated by the capacity to back up, so to speak, and to look at the basic structure and patterns of the system itself--a systemic focus.

  • In a related manner, mastery is supported by a bias toward action, whereas making change to the system is facilitated by the capacity for reflection.

  • Business mastery requires task mastery, while adaptation requires learning new skills and strategies.

  • Mastery often derives from intense interpersonal competition, while moving effectively through deep change is fostered by a strong dose of social cohesion, interpersonal support, emotional competence and a felt sense of community.

  • Business mastery is tied to a strong focus on financials, while significant change is facilitated by the capacity to deeply reconnect with the original purpose and meaning of the company.

  • Business mastery is facilitated by the capacity to manage repetitive, production-oriented processes, while adaptation is fostered by the capacity to innovate. And so on.

The competencies for mastery support disciplined execution of a fixed strategy. Also, they are all associated with being "on top and in control": goal achievement, task mastery, autonomy, power, action, persuasion, defense, rationality, intellect, logic, analysis, science, structure, planning and control. It scarcely requires mentioning that, collectively, we love all of these. In fact, it may not be far off to say that we are addicted to them. And why shouldn't we be? All of these feel good. It feels good to be strong, powerful and in control. It strokes the ego and fills the wallet.

Adaptation Competencies

Adaptation involves an entirely different, complementary, yet equally important spectrum of competencies: intuition, imagination, vision, creativity, play, humility, reflection, the capacity to learn, introspection, emotional competence, building relationships, authenticity, listening, connection with purpose and meaning, the capacity to let go and to let things develop and emerge, and spirituality. All of these support deep, creative change--the capacity to undergo metamorphosis: that is, to let an old identity and success strategy die and to generate new ones.

Our culture gives lip service to adaptation, but tends to reward only mastery. We call it "winning." In fact, we don't even classify adaptation competencies as competencies, because we associate the very word "competence" with mastery and winning - with being "on top and in control." In the business world, we often view people and organizations that are undergoing periods of adaptation with suspicion and classify them as being "weak" or even "losers."

The challenge we must face is that significant adaptation cannot happen without going through a small "death" - a period of unclear direction, of seeming chaos and formlessness. In general, our culture tends to regard this process as a sign of weakness because, for a period of time, we may not exactly know where we are going or what the next right move is. Our current skills and capabilities may be irrelevant to what is needed to move forward. The problem is that the creative process is the process of adaptation; and engaging deeply with the creative process requires moving into, and living in, a space of experimentation, which can look and feel like chaos or formlessness.

Bringing Control and Adaptation Together

So how do we manage both mastery and adaptation? First, accept adaptation as a natural part of life and embrace it. Embracing adaptation means actively building systemic capability for creativity and play, intuition, imaginative visioning, reflection and probing inquiry, maintaining connection with deep purpose, learning and constructively harnessing internal differences as fuel for innovation and growth. Doing this means we must pay people--and promote them--for building these competencies.

During periods of mastery, execute strategy with intense, disciplined focus; however, stop defending periods of mastery so fiercely. And then, paradoxically, during periods of mastery, while financial performance is excellent, deliberately engage in adaptation by actively experimenting to create new forms of value to replace those driving the current period of mastery. Don't wait to be forced into periods of adaptation; instead, proactively create the future. Use current economic success to prepay the burial of old business models, products and services, and to give birth to new ones.

One of the best current examples we have of this kind of strategy can be found in the mobile (cell) phone market, where new kinds of phones and capabilities are tumbling onto the market so fast we can barely keep up with them. Another area with a similar dynamic is the broader field of "personal electronics" in general - personal/portable audio players (MP3 and other formats), portable DVD players, portable electronic game players, handhelds, digital cameras, and so forth. Sometimes it seems like the shelf life of any of these products is about two or three months! These examples, while perhaps a bit on the extreme side, perfectly illustrate the idea of not holding on to a product to the bitter end, but rather using the revenue from early adopters to fund development of that same product's replacement!

To adopt this way of doing business, we need to embed the identity of our organizations in something larger and deeper than the particular products and services they currently provide, because they are ephemeral. We need to center the identity of our companies in the type of value or contribution that those products and services are intended to make to society, because contribution is the stable thread that will run through all products and services generated over time.

An interesting case to analyze in connection with this idea is Blockbuster, Inc. The mission statement on their Website reads: "to help people transform ordinary nights into BLOCKBUSTER nights by being their complete source for movies and games." But deeper in the "bowels" of their Website, in their International Operations area, is this statement: "Blockbuster is recognized as a world leader in rentable home entertainment."

Oddly, the second statement, connected with their international operations, is actually a more effective statement of corporate identity in terms of the criteria just discussed, because it succinctly describes the specific value that Blockbuster provides: rentable home entertainment. The mission statement is "hung up" on the specific media through which value is delivered. Because of this, it could inadvertently constrain the range of innovation options that Blockbuster might consider in creating future value propositions. The concept of "rentable home entertainment," however, is totally unconstrained by the constantly changing panoply of media and/or delivery channels (and content, for that matter); thus, it could serve as a deeper, more powerful center of identity and wellspring for continuous innovation.

Leading a company in this way involves looking at business models, value propositions, and products and services as members of a dynasty. New members continue to be born, grow up, mature, decline and die; however, the dynasty itself goes on.

Dr. Dean Robb is founder and Executive Director of the Center for Corporate Renewal. Since 1994, he has helped numerous domestic and foreign business leaders build high-performing, innovative, entrepreneurial enterprises. His expertise combines 26 years of practical, real-world experience in corporate America with in-depth research in human and organizational systems. For information on how Dr. Dean Robb can work with your organization to build a self-renewing organization - one that's highly adaptable to external market shifts, yet focused on and aligned behind a coherent business strategy - visit or call him at 908-757-4721.

Many more articles in Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2006 by Dean Robb. All rights reserved.

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