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InfoQ Homepage Articles Q&A on the Book Adaptive Space

Q&A on the Book Adaptive Space


Key Takeaways

  • Organizations need to positively disrupt or be disrupted
  • Adaptive space helps to move swiftly while also stabilizing to produce results
  • Leaders need to enable four types of connections (4D’s) to enable agility
  • Individuals can better enable their own success through five core principles
  • Organizational agility is about enabling intentional social connections

The book Adaptive Space by Michael Arena explores what enables organizations to positively disrupt themselves and transform into responsive agile organizations. It describes four sets of connections, and five core principles, that support organizations increasing their agility.

InfoQ readers can download a sample of the book Adaptive Space and can take a free self-assessment of network roles.

InfoQ interviewed Arena about the need for agility, what adaptive space is, the kind of activities that are done by key network roles, and asked him for advice for organizations that want to increase their agility.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Michael Arena: We live in the era of disruption; virtually every organization on the planet is either disrupting or being disrupted. In such times, lack of agility is the kiss of death. Perhaps John Chambers, executive chairman of Cisco said it best, “if you don't transform…if you don't reinvent yourself, change your organization structure; if you don't talk about speed of innovation—you're going to get disrupted. And it'll be a brutal disruption, where the majority of companies will not exist in a meaningful way 10 to 15 years from now.” A study from Washington University reinforces this notion by estimating that 40% of today’s S&P 500 companies will no longer exist a decade from now. 

This reality leaves organizations with a critical choice: positively disrupt or be disrupted. They need to adapt, in real time, in response to the changing demands of their environments. In the era of disruption organizations need to be more liquid than static. They need to be agile. Problem is, most organizations aren’t designed to adapt. They grew up in a world where operational efficiency was king. They were designed to manage, coordinate, and control activities. In such organizations, bold new ideas are quickly stifled. Even in the rare case where a brave individual introduces a provocative, new idea, it is almost always met with a spirited counter argument of why it won’t work. Most organizations function with an operational bias, they have perfected operations at the expense of agility.

Adaptive Space was written to shift this narrative. It was written to help organizations to respond differently in a world of change. This new narrative rests on the foundation of a decade of groundbreaking research that argues that when it comes to agility, organizations need to focus more on enabling social connections. Based on hundreds of interviews and network studies spanning many organizations and a variety of industries, Adaptive Space shows how to position your company for today ― and for the future ― by enabling creativity, innovation, and novel ideas to flow freely among teams, across departments, and throughout the company. 

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Arena: Adaptive Space was written for both organizational leaders and any other individual living inside of an operationally biased institution today. The book challenges leaders who are responsible for positioning their organization’s to confront disruption with smart, confident actions and seize the valuable opportunities that come with change. However, Adaptive Space was also written to provide those individual’s deep inside of any organization with the hope that they can chart their own course to better enable the success of their own ideas. By activating a set of network principles they can empower themselves to enable change. 

Based on years of research we have discovered five core principles of successful change agents no matter where they reside inside of an organization. These individuals actively engage the edges to discover new ideas, find a friend to get these ideas into the world, follow the energy to better defuse these ideas, embrace the conflict to create better organizational fit, and close the network to gain formal endorsement of these ideas. Adaptive Space was written to empower any individual who wants to enact change and ensure agility. 

InfoQ: In your book you described the need for agility. Can you elaborate?

Arena: Agility extends well beyond survival. The best organizations make it a priority. A recent study conducted by Korn Ferry highlights organizational agility as a top strategic priority for organizations that made FORTUNE’s list of the World’s Most Admired Companies. These organizations are better prepared for the changes ahead. According to the research, 95 percent of these companies say organizational agility is a “critical” or “very important” focus area. The world’s best organizations recognize that focusing on organizational agility to better respond to changing customer needs and technological shifts is essential in the era of disruption. 

The problem is, most organizations are not very proficient at it. In another study, McKinsey conducted a comprehensive review of 161 companies to determine which organizations were agile. They found that only 12% of these organizations were agile. That is, they found 19 companies that were able to respond to changing customer needs and technological shifts with speed, while also being able to stabilize processes and structures to generate results. This is where adaptive space comes into play; it appreciates the need for both entrepreneurial activity and operational discipline. 

InfoQ: What is “adaptive space”?

Arena: Our research found that every organization has an operational system that drives formality, standardization, and business performance. Perhaps a bit more surprising, every organization we reviewed also had entrepreneurial pockets of activity that strived for greater innovation, learning, and growth. However, only those organizations that were agile had a third element, adaptive space, which can be thought of as the bridge that actively moves ideas from the entrepreneurial pockets across an organization into the operational system. This enables organizations to move swiftly while also stabilizing enough to produce results. Both are essential for agility. 

It turns out, agility is more social than structural. In the era of disruption, strong social capital is essential to enabling organizations to swiftly adapt. In order to be agile, organizations need to more deeply understand the power of intentional social interactions in facilitating the flow of ideas, information and insights. Adaptive space can be thought of as the relational and emotional freedom for people to freely explore, exchange and debate ideas. It operates as a sort of free trade zone for ideas, by tapping into the power of network dynamics. Adaptive space creates connections that serve to discover, develop and diffuse new ideas into and across an organization. 

InfoQ: In your book you mentioned the 4D connections. What are they and how do they enable innovation and adaptation?

Arena: There are four types of connections that are critical for agility. Discovery and development connections represent how various networks within an organization are relationally arranged to explore and experiment with ideas. While diffusion and disruption represent the day-to-day emotional connections within an organization that either encourage people to engage in innovative activities or challenge the status quo. Together, the 4D connections usher in the new, innovative ideas and concepts necessary to positively disrupt.

InfoQ: What’s the kind of activities that "brokers" do?

Arena: Brokers help to facilitate discovery. They create the bridge connections across groups. They help organizations to overcome insularity. These bridge connections provide access to more ideas, insights and information. Sociologist Ron Burt’s research suggests that brokers are best positioned to have insightful ideas. In one study of nearly 700 managers, he was able to determine that the value of any given idea corresponded to the degree in which a manager was a broker. That is, the more managers discovered from other groups, the more valuable their ideas were. 

There are many ways to facilitate discovery; in one organization, an open forum “pitch day” was created so that individuals could openly share transformative ideas with other teams. If their idea generated interest, participants were encouraged to recruit an ad hoc team of colleagues from different groups to continue the discovery process and flesh out the broader concept. Brokerage interactions are the lifeblood of agility. They provide the fertile intersections for innovative possibilities to be discovered. However, ideas are cheap. They are only useful when they are brought to life. When they are applied.

InfoQ: What’s the kind of activities that “connectors” do? 

Arena: Connectors bring ideas to life. They facilitate development connections that enable small cohesive teams to share and refine ideas. These cohesive groups are tightly linked by many redundant connections within a given team, resulting in deep trust. This level of trust enables individuals to more openly share, debate and refine ideas. Harvard researcher Lee Fleming studied data from more than 35,000 inventors and found that while bridge connections generate valuable ideas, these connections actually hamper development. That is, for ideas to be useful, they need to be openly shared, experimented with and refined. Fleming found this happens best in small, cohesive teams with high levels of trust. 

These development connections facilitate idea elaboration and refinement. Amazon calls these “two pizza teams” because they are literally small enough that two pizzas can feed them for lunch. The cohesive nature of these teams enable team members to more openly challenge one another while still operating with speed. Therefore, development connections quickly bring ideas to life so they can generate impact. However, well-developed ideas are of little value if they are stuffed away inside some entrepreneurial pocket of a much broader organization. 

InfoQ: In your book you explored how following the energy and creating diffusion connections amplifies ideas. Can you elaborate?

Arena: Diffusion connections facilitate the linking up process to move ideas beyond local development pockets by scaling them across the organization. Fact is, ideas that are developed deep within cohesive two pizza teams are 43% more likely to be rejected by the broader organization. We know this as the “not created here” phenomenon. This is where network energy becomes essential. 

A few years ago, network experts Rob Cross and Wayne Baker conducted a comprehensive study of seven large organizational networks. What they discovered was amazing: energy —particularly from a person whom they called an “energizer”— has a significant impact on organizational progress. They determined that energy inside the network has a 4x lift in facilitating progress and idea diffusion. These energizers have the distinct ability to actively engage others in progressing an idea forward. That is, they inspire diffusion by enthusiastically encouraging others to engage in an idea. 

InfoQ: How do challengers approach opportunities and how does that work out in practice?

Arena: Challengers provoke change in an organization by tapping into external pressures. They provide the disruption connections necessary to ensure agility. Many organizations have become locked in to a set of routines and behaviors to maintain stability. The problem

is that, in a dynamic world, new challenges surface without warning. Challengers are critical to defending against these effects. They confront conventional thinking and methods to inspire a long view of future growth. They are keenly attuned to potentially disruptive external pressures and technological advances. As a result, challengers are able to elucidate these forces to others and push others toward new possibilities well before they are obvious to the organization. 

This is rarely without pushback from the system. For example, many years ago Richard Drew, a young engineer at 3M, thought that he had discovered a breakthrough. However, 3M’s former CEO, William McKnight, told Drew to abandon the project, contending it wasn’t worth the investment. Drew disregarded his advice and continued to work on the project. The result was the invention of masking tape, one of 3M’s central products. Most organizations won’t accept such defiance; then again, only 12% of them are agile. 

InfoQ: What's your advice for organizations that want to increase their agility?

Arena: Shift your internal narrative to enable agility. We often think about new methodologies such as agile design and lean start-up. We also think about organizational leadership and strategy. All of these are necessary but incomplete to enable agility. We must also think about our connections more intentionally. When is it that we need to discover? How might we develop out ideas and bring them to life? What does it take to get people energized about these ideas and how can they be diffused? Finally, how do we get these ideas formally endorsed? 

Combined, discovery, development, diffusion and disruption connections proactively position individuals and organizations alike to positively disrupt before being disrupted. In the era of disruption, our understanding of social capital will become increasingly more important to organizational agility. That is, these connections can either unleash, or stifle, adaptation. 

More simply stated, when it comes to organizational agility, it’s social.  

About the Book Author

Michael Arena is the chief talent officer for General Motors Corporation, where he launched GM2020, a grass roots initiative designed to enable employees to positively disrupt the way they work, which was highlighted in Fast Company and Fortune Magazine. His research on adaptation won the 2017 Walker Prize from People + Strategy and has been cited in the Wall Street Journal, Chief Executive Magazine, Harvard Business Review, Business Insider and Sloan Management Review. He currently teaches in Penn’s Masters in Organizational Dynamics program and acts as a design thinking coach within the Stanford He also spent two years as a visiting scientist within MIT’s Media Lab and served as senior vice president of Leadership Development at Bank of America.

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