Scaling Organization Agility with Adaptive Space by Michael Arena [Session Summary]


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It’s no secret that companies want to be more agile. After all, who would voluntarily choose to be left behind as the market evolves? It is a rhetorical question that doesn’t need an answer – however, actually building the organizational capacity to navigate change is no easy task. Becoming more agile requires a serious re-configuration of how a company operates. Often, companies are inconsistent in their efforts to become more adaptive, or fail to make the required changes last. This is where HR’s role in driving change is becoming increasingly evident as the purveyor of agile transformation.

In his presentation at the CHRO Virtual Summit Reloaded, Michael Arena, Chief Talent Officer at General Motors, presented his thesis that HR professionals will be at the vanguard of this change through the curation of an organizational ‘adaptive space’.

Why is agility critical today?

With the pace of change increasing and the average company lifespan shortening, many companies are simply not in a position to succeed. The erratic nature of the market and emerging disruptive technologies have changed the way companies must operate. So, how do you survive and flourish?

Arena argues that HR can no longer simply implement “one size fits all” approaches to organizational change. Any new initiatives must be able to impact results both today and tomorrow. To do this, HR must ensure new methodologies, tools, and strategies are adaptive. It’s simply not enough to implement new technologies on top of outdated business models – there must be an effective synergy between the two. Without an adaptive organizational model, companies will never become agile enough to navigate the world today.

What is adaptive space and how does it fit in an organization?

Arena describes adaptive space as “the relational and emotional freedom for people to freely explore, exchange, and debate ideas” and “operates as a sort of free trade zone for ideas”. Adaptive space works by creating connections that help to discover, develop, and diffuse ideas into and across the organization.

Many companies are structured with a core operational system that often has small pockets of entrepreneurial activity buried deep within. In some companies, these pockets are larger and or more visible than in others. There is a lot of variation – a tech start-up may be mostly entrepreneurial with a small organizational core, while a giant corporation may possess a large core with small pockets of entrepreneurial activity.

What this model typically lacks is a bridge between the two worlds. Arena argues that the bridge between the organizational core and the pockets of innovation is the place where entrepreneurial ideas can be developed, scaled, and accepted into the overall operating system.

“In the HR space, we’re going to be spending a lot more time over the next five years talking about energy versus engagement”

Connecting the dots

So, how do you facilitate the creation of an adaptive space in your organization? HR and business leaders must essentially take the entrepreneurial pocket and disperse the innovative talent across the organization. By doing this, you essentially ‘seed’ creative thinkers within parts of the organizational system that may not have been exposed to such thinking.

The people that are more creative and open tend to form social connections with people across the organization and promote the flow of information. Furthermore, HR can help broker this process by promoting four types of social arrangement that allow adaptive space to flourish:

  • Discovery: interactions that trigger novel ideas, new insights, and learning that leads to adaptation.
  • Development: local interactions within cohesive teams to facilitate idea elaboration and refinement.
  • Diffusion: interactions to move concepts across the broader organization to enable scaling.
  • Disruption: interactions to overcome the stifling effects of formal structure and enable network closure.

Creating a lasting network for discovery

In order to capitalize on the potential of adaptive space, you really need to create a sustainable means of discovery exchange. It’s not sufficient to distribute ‘creatives’ haphazardly, HR and business leaders need to embed a network across the company and curate ways of fostering creativity. The network should be comprised of energizers, who are not necessarily leaders, but those who are most apt to spread ideas. By seeding the network with energizers, it’s more likely in the longer term that these initiatives will throw up great ideas that can be scaled and tested across the company.


If you missed the CHRO Virtual Summit or some of the presentations – don’t worry – you can purchase access to the presentations and slides for a 30-day period by following this link.

The 3rd HR Congress Brussels, November 27-28 will feature a selection of sessions that will explore this topic and much more! Make sure you follow The HR Congress Blog and #HRCongress18 to stay posted on all the latest news, updates and content from the world of work!

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