AQ – Adaptability Quotient and the Growth Mindset



AQ  – Adaptability Quotient is being cited as the “New EQ” – the big thing that will make the difference between excellence and extinction in the modern workplace.

In a nutshell, it’s about how well placed you are as an individual or organisation, to adapt to the rapidly changing circumstances in which we now all operate.

When I’m talking to clients I use the Blockbuster example. It would not have mattered if they had the most engaged teams, the best leaders, the best sites and the most impressive labour and GP ratios. There business would still have died because people became able to watch films for free on their telephones.

It is super easy to be exceptionally busy with all the things that have always made you successful as an individual. Or focus almost entirely on the things that are driving the profitability of your business today.

But how much time and structured thinking do you put into the things that might make your business obselete in 10 years? Or maybe more scarily, turn you from someone with a proven track record in skills that are highly valued, into someone who is the business equivalent of a Betamax expert.

It’s not new science. How adaptable we are is closely connected to things you may have read already about Growth Mindset.

However the AQ or adaptive thinking terminology has helped emphasise one of the most difficult things we overcome when we develop a genuine Growth Mindset – that we have to learn to challenge our very deeply helps beliefs on things. And that sometimes these are the very things that made us successful in the first place.

I’ve summarised what it takes to train your brain to have a higher AQ at the bottom of this article, using the acronym ADAPTS so it’s easy to remember and pass on.

So if it is such an easy concept to get your head around, why is AQ so prized? It’s because it is easy to define, but really difficult to do.

This is because our brains don’t like adaption. So those with high AQ are likely to have done some pretty difficult thinking. Adapting in business is crucial, but when the “what’s in it for me” is more important even than that – and is the difference between surving or dying, our brains are great at coming up with very rational ways to resist adaption.

I am very fond of the sad story told in a HBR book Immunity to Change. A number of heart patients were told that they were faced with almost certain death if they did not change their lifestyle habits. Only 1 in 7 were able to make the necessary changes. 6 died.

Even when it is literally a matter of life and death, the motivation to change is not enough. We still listen to our faulty wiring. Our brain  finds evidence that what we have always done is still OK and we listen to it because it means we don’t have to do something difficult or painful.

When our brain tells us “I know I have to find the time to do this a bit differently and I will definitely do it tomorrow” we can defer what we need to do, but will be difficult. And go back to focusing on what is comfortable instead.

It makes sense. Old habits die hard – especially ones that we think helped to contribute to previous success.

Take the scientific research that appears to prove irrefutably that there is a link between whether people like you and whether they rate you professionally.

In one Harvard study of over 57,000 leaders only 0.1% of who were disliked by their teams, were also perceived as being good at their job.

How hard would that be to read if you were a 50 year old Executive who has oft quoted the mantra “I’m not here to be liked, I’m here to be respected.”

Woah. Our brains just don’t like that sort of curve ball. We have a complex system of thinking that is there for good reason – to protect us from the shame of being wrong. Or the disappointment of wondering about what could have been.

So instead our brains try to keep us safe from shame and disappointment and quickly find “evidence” that justifies keeping that questionable belief intact. But that is what AQ is all about. Developing the confidence and mental agility to adapt even your most strongly held beliefs and assumptions if you find they might be wrong.

A leader who has not bothered previously about being “liked” with low AQ would probably stick with the first “rational” thought that dismisses that research out of hand and enables them to get back to the business of the day. “Yeah but that was just in America. It’s unlikely that it was in a tough environment like mine. Look at what I’ve achieved. It’s clearly tree hugging rubbish.”

It’s much, much harder to develop a personal high AQ. Where you allow yourself to feel a bit ashamed of yourself for being quite horrible at times and acknowledge you might need to adapt your thinking into something like “Well that blows my assumption out of the water that it is shows weakness to want to be liked. Wow, that’s uncomfortable. What would I have done differently if I had known this 20 years ago? OK. Let’s think. What can I do about this right now. Today”.

Given how hard genuine adaptive change is for us as individuals, why are we surprised that it is even harder – and sometimes feels impossible – in an organisation?

An organisation is simply a collection of people doing business together. If if the business environment changes, what makes us believe that those people can automatically follow suit?

Changing ways of working is difficult. I would say almost impossible. Getting people to let go of something they have found useful in the past takes time, effort and real focus. It is not something that can be achieved with a day’s training (or even a week of workshops) – no matter how good the training is or how hot the burning platform is to change something.

It is really common practise for us to work hard to set a vision, goals and values and invest a lot of time and money in encouraging maybe hundreds or thousands of people to “sing from the same hymn sheet”. But we remain surprised when people can’t remember the new lyrics, even if they agree the song has become old hat.

I’ve seen evidence where even if where we have uncovered that a business “myth” is actually propping up underperformance, teams and individuals can really want to hold onto it.

The article in HBR about AQ from 2011 resonates with me more than ever. We are learning more daily about why we find change difficult and why AQ or “adaptive quotient” may become the new EQ.

Reeves and Delmer write:

“Management paradigms die hard, especially when they have historically been the basis for success.”

The article is great. Please do read it. However if you are now too busy because you have read this instead, there are 6 key things that you can do to train you and your organisation to be more adaptive so that you can increase your AQ. Ask questions and spend time thinking about Alternatives, Disrupters, Assumptions, Plans, Threats and Speed – helpfully we have turned their recommendations into – ADAPTS.

Try these 6 things today to increase your AQ.

1) ALTERNATIVES: Insist any change proposal has several suggested alternatives as a matter of course – this encourages cognitive and organisational flexibility

2) DISRUPTERS: Ask questions that set an expectation that the leaders in your business are thinking about what the disrupters on the edges of your business are doing – not just what your competitors are up to.

3) ASSUMPTIONS: Get into the habit of thinking about and  asking questions about what you think you all “know”. Are there some firmly and widely held beliefs that you need to have the courage to challenge?

4) PLANS: Do you spend quality time and energy thinking and reflecting on plans that take your business beyond what you know? What are the megatrends? What are you under-exploiting? What can you not know?

5) THREATS: Treat threats or risks to your business with rigour. Do you have people with time and a clear responsibility for exploring areas of potential market exposure. Do you set up and incentivise  initiatives to measure future threats with the same passion as you measure yesterday’s performance?

6) SPEED: Increase your “clock-speed” – make any annual reviews lighter and consider how to transform any processes that you do on a monthly or annual basis into business as usual activity that takes minutes not hours.

I am frequently to be heard challenging my clients about separating “business fact” from “business fiction”.

We all have assumptions. We are wired to make them. But we can train our brains to stand back and check them out for what they are. We can then decide if the things that we are protecting are actually the same things that are holding us back.

To increase your AQ, remind yourself and your organisation regularly that some organisational widely held beliefs and firmly followed processes are actually based on questionable or outdated assumptions. Also remember that initially it will be normal that when you question them, your individual and collective organisation brains might be desperate to hold onto them!

Here are some questions I have found helpful to ask. I hope they stimulate some thinking for you.

What trends are emerging that mean we just won’t have customers in the same numbers in 5 years?”

“What would X do if they bought our business?”
Insert whatever name you like for X.

“Is this actually “real” or a myth we like – that it suits us to believe?”

“Just because our brains can to find “evidence” to support that view, does it mean it is actually true?”

“Did this used to be a business fact but one we need to question now things have moved on?”

What do we not want to know?”

“If we needed to overcome that risk within 6 weeks, who would we have working on it and what resources would they need to create a viable alternative in that time?”

“If we needed 3 other options, what would they be?”

“What would be ridiculous about us turning that annual review into a fortnightly one?”

I hope that helps explain what AQ is if you hear someone mention it!

More importantly, I hope it gives you a head start about how we could help you to do something about it before everyone else does!

Contact us via for more information and a cuppa to get you thinking. It’s our job to keep you. ahead of the curve.