In the ever-evolving business landscape, leaders are constantly faced with new challenges.
From natural disasters like COVID-19 to economic downturns to technology-led disruptions like the one GenAI is unleashing, there is no shortage of potential disruptions.
When a crisis strikes, leaders need to be prepared to act quickly and decisively. They need to rapidly collect data, assess the situation, and make decisions that will minimize the damage. However, at such times, merely adapting may not be enough to ensure an organization’s survival and growth. To truly thrive amidst uncertainty, leaders must embrace the concept of exaptation — a powerful tool from complexity science that encourages them to repurpose existing strengths and resources creatively.
Exaptation is a process in which a trait that evolved for one purpose is later used for a different purpose. This can happen when the environment changes, rendering the original purpose of the trait obsolete. For example, the feathers of birds initially evolved for insulation. However, they were later co-opted for flight, demonstrating the versatility and creativity of exaptation in driving evolutionary change.
Jeff Bezos, the visionary leader of Amazon, has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to exapt existing resources creatively. During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the world was grappling with a shortage of test kits and vaccines, Bezos realized the immense potential of Amazon’s vast logistics network. Originally designed to deliver books and other products to customers, the logistics network was a valuable lifeline for delivering essential medical supplies.
Leaders can use exaptation to solve new problems or to create new opportunities. For example, a leader could use exaptation to:
* Repurpose existing resources to meet new needs.
* Develop new products or services based on existing technologies.
* Create new markets by finding new uses for existing products or services.
Reusing “best practices” and exaptation differ significantly. Reusing “best practices” is suited for complicated situations where cause-and-effect relationships exist, requiring expertise for analysis and replication. In contrast, exaptation shines in the complex domain, urging leaders to embrace creativity and adaptability when navigating ambiguity and unpredictability.
Understanding the distinctions between these approaches is critical for leaders to effectively address challenges in diverse business contexts and avoid falling into the trap of “best practices”. They need to optimize their problem-solving strategies based on the nature of the complexity they encounter.
Crisis situations often demand immediate action, leaving little time for developing novel solutions from scratch. In such scenarios, exaptation provides a powerful tool for repurposing existing strengths to address new and unexpected challenges swiftly. This approach allows leaders to leverage their organization’s accumulated knowledge and resources, avoiding the need for lengthy development of new solutions.
Exaptation is about moving forward, says Bryce Hoffman in an article in Forbes. He further quotes Dave Snowden’s excellent and succinct explanation.
Exaptation is a key concept in complexity science. It’s the radical repurposing of things you’re already good at to handle novelty because, in a crisis, you don’t have time to invent from scratch; you’ve got to repurpose fast.
Leaders should create an environment where innovation is celebrated, and experimentation is encouraged. Encourage employees to think outside the box and explore new ways of approaching challenges. Emphasize that failure is a part of the learning process and that taking calculated risks is essential for driving exaptation.
Break down silos and encourage collaboration across different teams and departments. Cross-functional collaboration exposes individuals to diverse perspectives and skill sets, fostering the exchange of ideas and promoting the identification of innovative solutions. Encourage open communication and create platforms for sharing knowledge and expertise.
Acknowledge and reward employees who demonstrate exaptation in their work. Celebrate successful examples of repurposing existing strengths or resources to address new challenges. Recognition and rewards not only motivate individuals but also signal the organization’s commitment to fostering innovation and resourcefulness, promoting a culture of exaptation.
Exaptation is a guiding principle that leaders can wield to navigate crises successfully. Assessing the situation, adapting strategies, and embracing exaptation allows leaders to respond with agility and creativity. By empowering their teams to repurpose existing strengths, leaders foster a culture that thrives on innovation and resourcefulness.
In times of crisis, the ability to transcend challenges becomes the bedrock of resilience and the catalyst for future success. With exaptation as a strategic tool, leaders can confidently steer their organizations towards brighter horizons, regardless of the stormy seas they may encounter.
Hrishikesh is a Director, Financial Services BU at Capgemini. He has 19+ years of experience in IT software industry playing high responsibility roles as Agile Transformation Lead, Agile Coach, Program Manager, Delivery Manager, Technical Project Manager, Technical Lead & Software Engineer. Hrishikesh is passionate about building high performing teams, taking individuals and teams on a journey of excellence and satisfaction. His vision of Agile is not just about implementing effective, efficient and lean processes, but transforming people’s mindsets – to deliver better ROI and real business benefits. Hrishikesh holds a Bachelor of Engineering, Production Engineering from VJTI, University of Mumbai.