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An Adaptive Change Approach: A Solution for Regeneration?

Updated: Jun 20, 2023

In today's rapidly evolving world, businesses and societies face a multitude of complex challenges. From climate change to shifting market dynamics, the need for change has never been more apparent. It is no longer enough to simply focus on sustainability; we must strive for regeneration. To achieve this, organizations must embrace adaptive change as a solution to fostering connections, championing eco-conscious initiatives, and creating meaningful, lasting progress.

Understanding the Need for Change

The Limitations of Sustainability

Over the past decade, the concept of sustainability has gained significant traction, with numerous individuals and organizations adopting green initiatives in an effort to preserve our planet's limited resources. However, while these efforts are commendable, they are no longer sufficient. Maintaining the status quo will ultimately lead us towards disaster, as our current consumption patterns continue to deplete the Earth's resources at an alarming rate.

The Call for Regeneration

In response to the limitations of sustainability, a growing movement has emerged, advocating for regeneration as the next logical step in our collective pursuit of a healthier, more equitable world. Regenerative practices aim to not only maintain but actively improve the environment and society at large, creating a future that is not only sustainable but thriving. By focusing on adaptive change, organizations can begin to work towards this regenerative future and move beyond the confines of sustainability.

The Three Aspects of Adaptive Change to move to Regeneration

To effectively implement adaptive change, it is crucial for organizations to understand and address three critical aspects of change: transactional, transitional, and transformational. This holistic approach ensures that every element of the organization is considered, allowing for a more comprehensive and lasting impact.

This adaptive change thinking comes from the three horizons framework. A model that is collaboratively developed by International Futures Forum (IFF) members and other futures practitioners (see Hodgson & Sharpe, 2007; Curry & Hodgson, 2008; Sharpe 2013). You can read much more detail on this in Daniel Christian Wahl’s article The Three Horizons of innovation and culture change on Medium that gives great insights in how the three aspects of organizational.

Transactional Change

This aspect of change focuses on the tangible actions and processes that occur during a change initiative, such as new structures, procedures, and functional outputs. While these are important components of any change effort, they are not sufficient on their own to create lasting, regenerative progress.

Transitional Change

Transitional change refers to the emotional and psychological aspects of change, which are often overlooked in traditional change models. By addressing these components, organizations can better support their employees as they navigate the challenges and uncertainties associated with change.

Transformational Change

Finally, transformational change involves shifts in behavior, ideology, or organizational identity. This is where the true potential for regeneration lies, as it allows for the emergence of innovative ideas and practices that can lead to lasting, positive change.

The Adaptive Change Model

The Adaptive Change Model is a cyclical process that enables organizations to respond effectively to intentional or unintentional destabilizing events, ultimately leading to a higher level of performance.

This model encompasses five key aspects of change:

  1. Transactional Aspects: These arise from destabilizing events that create organizational volatility and the need for a new vision. During periods of stability, the transactional aspect is represented by a solid green line, which becomes broken as uncertainty or unpredictability emerge.

  2. Transitional Aspects: These arise from the initiation of transactional change and are represented by the emotionally generated red line of change. Proper management of the transitional aspect is essential, as it determines the shape of the dip (known as the "cauldron") in the transactional journey. This process involves three stages: Letting Go, Neutral Presence, and Letting Come.

  3. Transformational Aspects: These occur when complexity gives way to clarity, and new opportunities emerge. Some form of transformation is necessary to move the transactional line upwards and towards the envisioned future state.

  4. Learning: Throughout each stage of the change journey, the organization must continuously learn and adapt. This involves identifying what to conserve and what to let go, imagining opportunities and generating ideas, and rapidly prototyping and cross-pollinating with others.

  5. Leadership: Finally, leaders play a crucial role in managing multiple adaptive change journeys simultaneously, rather than focusing solely on a single initiative.

The Role of Adaptive Change in Creating a Regenerative Future

Addressing Climate Change

Adaptive change is particularly relevant in the context of climate change, a pressing issue that demands immediate and comprehensive action. By embracing adaptive change, organizations can more effectively respond to the complex challenges posed by climate change, fostering innovation and collaboration to develop and implement effective solutions.

Promoting Regeneration and Sustainability

Adaptive change is also a powerful tool for promoting regeneration and sustainability more broadly. By focusing on holistic change that addresses transactional, transitional, and transformational aspects, organizations can drive lasting progress and move beyond the limitations of traditional sustainability efforts.

Fostering Collaboration and Connection

Finally, adaptive change encourages collaboration and connection, which are essential components of any regenerative future. By fostering a culture of adaptability and innovation, organizations can create an environment where individuals feel empowered to contribute their unique perspectives and ideas, ultimately leading to more effective and lasting change.

Implementing an Adaptive Change Process in Your Organization

My way of thinking about an Adaptive Change Process reflects itself in three parts that connect, interconnect and are never ‘completely done’.

We’ll go through each of these parts in a bit more detail, sharing one way to approach the transformational change challenge.

Discover – Give People a Voice

1. Why

Begin by identifying key stakeholders and involving them in the process from the outset. This will help to create motivation and support for the changes, while also fostering a sense of co-ownership and responsibility among team members.

With the stakeholders, conduct a strategy canvas workshop to create a clear regenerative vision for the future, outlining what you know from a strategic and operational perspective at the start of the initiative. Include the specific outcomes and goals you hope to achieve through adaptive change. This vision should reflect the transformational change you’re trying to achieve, and be both inspiring and realistic, allowing for the possibility of setbacks and challenges along the way.

2. Assess Your Current State

Conducting an honest assessment of your organization's current state, including its strengths, weaknesses, and areas for potential growth. This will provide a starting point for the targeted transformational change.

One way of achieving this is through an open conversation on Transitional Aspects: what should be let go, has a neutral presence, and should be changed or added with your identified stakeholders:

  • Get them in a room and talk about the Transactional Aspects: Rules, rituals, processes that consume their time. Question if those are needed? Valuable? Organize the responses in a matrix that shows the stakeholders perspectives on the necessity and added value. Have an in depth conversation about the placement of the items on the matrix.

  • For the less valuable and/or less needed items the stakeholders agree on, determine who/what is impacted if you eliminate or change them? Who would take the decision?

  • Move these items over to a perspective map. On one side of the map show those items that can be helpful to achieve the transformational change (even though the stakeholders believe that in their current daily work they are less needed or valuable), on the other side those that can work against it. For each item determine if the group can control a change, influence a change, or if a potential change is out of their control.

  • Now move the group to a Transitional stance: Identify items that can be improved by changing them or replacing them with more adaptive, transformational change supporting rules, rituals or processes. Question if the group can influence these changes? Who else would they need?

  • Use a 7S diagram (for example) to visualize interconnectedness. When we change or eliminate an item, what are the expected effects and what else is affected?

  • Which (un)expected impacts from external events and the ecosystem will you accept or avoid? Add that information as well to the diagram.

The purpose of this 6 step exercise is to understand what transactional aspects can form a starting point for transition. It will help the team see the impact a change in those transactional aspects will have on the organization’s current state.

3. Desired Outcomes

Now that you have a co-created Strategic Canvas and explored the current (transactional) situation ask the team the question what they desire as outcome.

What transitional state do we want to be in? How will that lead to the envisioned transformational state? What do we want to achieve? How are we going to measure whether we’re on the right track? How do we know that we’re satisfied with what the change has achieved?

Design – Understand and Crystalize

Images credit in the section: Lean Change Management

In this stage we organize (or reorganize, but more to that later) what to can do, how we’ll approach it, and what we will do.

1. Big, Next, Now

Designing a detailed roadmap for implementing transformational change, is a waste of time. There, it’s said. The problem is that transformational change is complex. The transitional aspects help us learn how to deal with complexity and uncertainty. The outcomes then can lead to needed adaptation of our next set of activities.

So what can we do? At the beginning of this stage in the design we reuse part of our Discover stage. We define the desired end result, and describe our current state. These become the start and end points of the ‘Big’ arc.

We then cut up our path towards the desired end state in monthly (or quarterly) goals/objectives. These form an initial idea of the ‘chain’ of event goals that’ll get us to the desired state, the ‘Next’ arcs.

Within each ‘Next’ arc we then define the 3 most important things to do ‘Now’ to reach the goals of the ‘Next’. This should include both transactional, transitional aspects of change, as well as the start of any necessary transformational shifts. From the exercises of the current state assessment we have a number of items we can chose to start working on in the first ‘Now’ arcs.

2. How will we learn

Because transformational change is complex, an adaptive change process is highly focused on learning. We can learn from each type of action we deploy, though the amount and type of learning, risk and uncertainty is different.

In an adaptive change process, we identify three types of actions: Activities, Experiments, and Hacks.

Activities deal with low uncertainty type of actions, “plannable tasks”. They are mainly related to the Transactional Aspects. There’s a high probability that we get the cause and effect relation right from the beginning. The learning we obtain from activities is how to plan them well, how to insert quality from the start, and if some transactional aspect should/are ready to move into a transitional space.

Experiments deal with a medium level of uncertainty. These are Transitional Aspects of the change. We try to learn about a specific situation, about a potential response, the functioning of a practice in our organizational structure and culture. Our learning from experiments guides us towards transformational activities, or back to (improved) transactional aspects.

Hacks deal with high levels of uncertainty. If we decide to start with a hack, we jump straight into transformational aspects. The type of action we’re deploying is targeting exposure of a malfunction, a misfit, which is not recognized as such or ignored. We are clueless as to how the organization will respond to these, though the learning will guide us in understanding the readiness of the organization for this kind of transformational aspects.

Note that transformational aspects that we work on do not only come from Hacks. They can come as well from learning from experimentation.

3. Setting priorities

So far, in the current state assessment, we have discovered and identified things that we can do. The phase where we set priorities we determine for the first ‘Now’ arcs what we will do.

Looking back to the results from the current state assessment, items were identified that are considered of less value or low necessity by the stakeholder group. Of these items we have created an understanding about our potential to influence their change.

The remaining question is: which do we target first?

We can use a simple Cost vs Value matrix for this.

There are three major factors to consider when assessing your Options:

  1. Cost: What’s the effort or investment needed to make this Option viable?

  2. Value: What’s the benefit? Does it outweigh the cost?

  3. Level of Disruption: How disruptive would this Option be in the organization? Often this is a gut-feel notion, and hard to quantify. The interconnectedness diagram created in the current state assessment can be a guide: the more interconnected an option, the higher the level of disruption.

We add the third factor to help categorize an option as Transactional/Activity, Transitional/Experiment, or Transformational/Hack. We can color code this distinction by using sticky notes in different colors, or adding small stickers of different colors to the sticky notes.

Our prioritization of options in the beginning of a transformational change should include more experimentation and low cost-low/high value options. Choosing with those characteristics increases learning and visibility for the change.

Deliver – Implement and Learn

1. Deploying

Each type of action, Activities, Experiments, Hacks, have their own approach.

Activities can be ‘simply’ planned and executed. We know what to do, we know what results to expect, we know who to involve and what the potential impacts are. To use the famous Nike slogan “Just Do It”.

Experiments need a little more work. Jason Little (author of Lean Change Management and creator of the images in this section) states: Crafting an experiment is an exercise in taking action based on good enough data.

So, what makes a good experiment? There are four aspects:

  1. Hypothesis. We want to change something for a reason. It’s a good idea to have a well-formed hypothesis. Your hypothesis should answer questions like: Why do we want to do this? What do we think will happen?

  2. Measurements. Measurements are tricky. We break them into qualitative, and quantitative buckets. Sometimes you simply want to test the reaction to an idea. Think about: What evidence would we see if this experiment works out the way we want it to? What new insights would be valuable?

  3. Intangibles. How long should we run it? How much uncertainty do we face?

  4. Make it Visible! Your experiments should be visible to anyone. Sometimes making your experiments visible IS the experiment.

Hacks need to be treated carefully. They may cost a person’s credibility or, worse even, job. What a hack is and how to treat it may be best explained with an example given by Jason (yes, him again, the image shows a picture of the real life situation):

“The final straw was when the CIO didn’t show up for a “Q&A” on the new open working areas. This was 2012 so remote work wasn’t really a thing, and neither we co-located spaces, for the most part. To be fair, the CIO was summoned to a board meeting, but still he should have said no. The conference centre was full with people and one of the managers just told everybody it was canceled.

We put up this sign the day the open working area opened. We left stickies and sharpies on the cabinet next to the sign and people let the world know they weren’t happy. We got in a lot of trouble for this, but it was worth it because the next time they wanted to create an open working area, they did it WITH the staff, instead of AT them.”

2. Monitor Progress and Learn

Finally, continuously monitor the progress of your adaptive change initiative, using the progress metrics and definitions of done you have come with through the Adaptive Change Process to far (in Discover, Design and Deliver).

Run regular canvas review, Lean Coffee and retrospective sessions to best capture learning from the activities you are deploying.

3. Pursue, Pivot, Pause

Finally, an adaptive change process wouldn’t be adaptive if there isn’t a moment where we check if we are still on track and aligned with your overarching transformational vision. This may involve addressing unforeseen challenges, revising your Big/Next/Now map, or reevaluating your goals and outcomes.

The related activity here is a decision making process. We decide about each item we took on in the ‘Now’ arc, if we need to:

  • Pursue – it worked! Let’s repeat!

  • Pivot – it kind of worked, but we need to adjust our activity/experiment/hack a bit, and give it another shot.

  • Pause – the wrong thing and/or at the wrong moment. Don’t throw it away. We learned from it. There ay come a time where this comes back at us.


Change is an inevitable part of life, both for individuals and organizations. By embracing adaptive change, we can move beyond the limitations of sustainability and work towards a regenerative future that benefits both people and the planet. By focusing on transactional, transitional, and transformational aspects of change, organizations can create lasting, meaningful progress, fostering collaboration and connection in the pursuit of a healthier, more equitable world.

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