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What’s Your Adaptability Quotient (AQ)?

Nurturing the workplace characteristic for humans who don’t want to be replaced by a machine

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash
Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

A robot isn’t going to take your job. But unless you master tomorrow’s most important workplace characteristic—adaptability—you may give your job away to one.

An IBM study predicts that machines will take over the jobs currently done by 120 million employees in the world’s 12 largest economies by 2023. Many of those workers will face redundancy if they’re not adaptable and willing to reskill. As the pace of change accelerates, flexible employees who are curious to learn are no longer just desirable; they’re essential to a company’s survival.

But how do you identify,  hire and develop people with high adaptability? Is there an AQ—adaptability quotient—that you can measure? It’s not strictly quantifiable, but you can look to previous ways to assess personal capabilities for some clues.

IQ, EQ and AQ

Today’s modern IQ tests have been around since the mid-1950s, but intelligence testing stretches back to the late 1800s. In the 1990s, the ability to see things from another person’s perspective and handle that person’s emotional behavior became more important in the workplace. Daniel Goleman’s 1995 book, Emotional Intelligence, started the EQ revolution by arguing that we’d been over-indexing on IQ instead of prioritizing the “people side” of smart. The idea swept over the culture, and by October of that year, the cover of Time magazine asked: “What’s your EQ?”.

EQ showed that it took more than intelligence to resolve conflicts and achieve goals. AQ brings that approach into the modern world, with an emphasis on handling the ups and downs of life in general and the business world in particular. It’s a contemporary workplace application of what Charles Darwin wrote in On The Origin of The Species back in 1859: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, it is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

AQ made its debut in the public consciousness a decade ago, when a column by career coach and executive recruiter Stuart Parkin titled “What’s Your Adaptability Quotient?” appeared in for AdAge. Parkin compared it to Moore’s Law, the tech industry observation that computer processor speeds double every two years.  

Looking back, Parkin was prescient in describing the importance of adaptability in the workplace. “Given that there are many aspects of a job to which we might have to adapt—such as location, new responsibilities, new reporting structures and new skills—the worst time to adapt is when you are told to,” he wrote. “Conversely, the best time to adapt is quite simply, always. This is unless you believe that nothing around you will change.”

That brings us to today, where rapid change is the new normal. Today’s work environment is less predictable and changes at a much faster pace than ever before. To keep up, companies need new skills and new ways of thinking about how we do our work, manage our careers and train new employees. Most HR professionals regard having an above-average IQ and EQ as prerequisites for success in work but agree that those alone are no longer enough. Creative agility—the capacity to adapt to a continually evolving work environment—is just as necessary.

Spotting AQ in Individuals

We can observe signs of high AQ in individuals. They’re usually the more curious kids at school, the ones who may try their parents’ and teachers’ patience by continually asking “why?” and “why not?” and “what if?”. Curbing such exuberance may be necessary for order in a classroom. Still, if it’s too rigidly enforced, it risks discouraging the child and, over time, may damage the child’s natural ability to be adaptable.

Enthusiastic children are more willing to try things out, to take risks; they’re often also precocious. Their natural curiosity and an inherent desire for new information, if nurtured, greatly enhance their career prospects.

As adults, they can distinguish between relevant and obsolete knowledge. Instinctively, they know when past practices have become outdated and unreliable. Crucially, they are open to new ideas and anxious to explore them. Just as they did as children, they regularly ask “why?” and “why not?” and “what if?”. But as adults, they will mostly ask these questions of themselves. These are the very traits that innovative companies look for in potential employees and strive to nurture in existing ones.

Many workers are not naturally curious and adaptive, and may not even consider the traits important if they consider them at all. They just do their work from one day to the next as they always have done and are comfortable in that static mode. In a fast-changing work environment, that kind of workforce will struggle to handle disruption. The good news is that Millennials index very high against AQ, and it’s making the world and business much better for it.

Corporate Programs to Increase Employees’ AQ

As companies recognize the importance of AQ to today’s successful employees, many are introducing programs to bring awareness to adaptability.

The first aim of these programs is to explain the value of adaptability for the business and the employee. The second is to urge employees to embrace it by examining the minute details of their jobs and ferreting out overlaps, obsolescence, and inefficiencies.

But the real purpose of these incentives is to stimulate an adaptable mindset in as many employees as possible. The logic behind that approach is that a critical mass of more adaptable employees helps the company do its current work more efficiently, identify missed opportunities, and be better prepared for unpredictable, disruptive events.

According to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the best-selling author of “The Black Swan” and “Antifragile,” to succeed in life, one must balance taking reasonable precautions against anticipated challenges with maintaining flexibility. The latter is crucial since no one can predict and plan for all future challenges.

In the natural world, species that fail to adapt become extinct. The law of natural selection and survival of the fittest applies equally to businesses, especially in today’s highly competitive and rapidly evolving corporate world. In a word, survival in nature and business is all about adaptability.

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