Moving beyond Adaptable: The Need for Antifragile Leadership

by Ross Peters | Vice President of School Strategy, with Sudipti Kumar | Director of Research

As the team at EXPLO Elevate has discussed the specific challenges facing schools this Fall, we find that there is a temptation to seek parallels that may not exist between the challenges of Spring 2020 and those to come in Fall 2020.

In part because there has been limited time to reflect on what has occurred already, school leaders and faculty members are at risk of remaining in the reactive posture demanded in the Spring when this Fall requires a far more strategic and antifragile posture.

 

Our work over the last few months has sought to help schools and school people–leaders, faculty, and staff–build the muscles they will need to move into and through the most immediate challenge set, as well as create the muscle memory they will need to engage and succeed within the the world to come–no matter what it looks like. While each topic is specifically relevant to the work of schools this Fall, it has also been our desire to pair these next practices with the timeless components of best practice that provide a compass well-beyond the mind-boggling problems that will dominate the next weeks and months. 

The most critical component underpinning our approach has been our belief that Spring 2020 was a reactivity moment–the quality of a school’s work as of mid-March was appropriately based on the degree to which the school was successful reacting. If Covid19 was a Tsunami, constituents evaluated schools by how quickly they got to high ground and how functional they were when they got there. This Fall, however, a school, even if its leaders, faculty, and staff feel as if they are still straining to get to higher ground, will be assessed on the degree to which it behaves strategically, the extent to which its actions and programs are adaptable within that strategy, and the degree to which it signals that it will come through this historical moment as an antifragile, mission-based organization. Saying schools will be assessed on these criteria is a gentle way of capturing this moment–perhaps more accurately, schools will determine their relative short and long-term sustainability based on these criteria applied to their decision-making and execution of those decisions in the 2020-2021 school year. It is not fair, but focusing on its fairness is an irrelevant distraction.

 

We have two pieces that encase our thinking about antifragility. I believe they each help set the stage for a school to rise above the challenges that await. The first is “What if we all trained to go to Mars? By Moira Kelly, President of EXPLO. In it, she discusses adaptability in a context that makes it nearly synonymous with antifragility. While at Elevate we now see the terms as quite different, the usefulness of her original piece remains. The second piece is our definition of Antifragility Quotient, described below.

From Astronaut Quotient to Adaptability Quotient to Antifragility Quotient

Moira Kelly describes the critical skills astronauts need to develop as they train for space expeditions, and how hiring for these qualities, or developing staff members’ skills across these domains, could serve organizations well at any time, but particularly during a pandemic. What are the dispositions that serve astronauts well? Resilience, Curiosity, Adaptability/Flexibility, Ability to Trust, and Creativity. 

Moira used the term “Astronaut Quotient” to sum up this set of skills. Another apt name for what she describes is Adaptability Quotient (AQ). This is not a new concept – Stuart Parkin, a career coach and executive, coined the term in 2010, when he discussed the positive role adaptability, or flexibility, can play when searching for jobs. Since then, metrics to assess adaptability in the workplace, either during recruitment or as part of a staff training program, have proliferated. 

At Elevate, we have been thinking long and hard about Adaptability Quotient and how people and organizations with these core skills are the ones thriving during the incredibly difficult moments that have consumed us since early March. We have also been pondering how adaptability is only one part of what a leader needs from their team. Having a set of highly flexible employees who are willing to trust is vital, as it indicates that they will be willing to pivot quickly and strategically.

In another recent piece, Mark Greenlaw, Executive Director of Elevate, wrote on the importance of conducting pre-mortems as they relate to school reopening plans. It is important for leaders to give space for people to voice their concerns and speak up with criticisms or to “poke holes” in any new plan or change to avoid disaster. In fact, a leaders’ ability to allow for that period of reflection is a true test of her ability to adapt, modeling for the organization that having high AQ must be coupled with thoughtfulness. Add to that the leader’s critical role in having an eye towards preservation of the organization’s core elements that are foundational to its culture and ethos. We are calling that latter part, Mission Commitment. 

With this in mind, we propose that in addition to the skills and dispositions we articulate above that comprise AQ, an additional two be added for a total of seven.

This is our Antifragility Quotient (AFQ):  

  1. Resilience 
  2. Curiosity 
  3. Flexibility
  4. Ability to Trust
  5. Creativity 
  6. Reflectiveness
  7. Commitment to Mission, Values, and Strategy

 

Many school leaders demonstrate most, but not all of these qualities. Those who have the right combination of all seven, are the ones with truly high AFQ. The future for them holds opportunity not only because they are willing to make the necessary changes, but they are also thoughtful enough to do it with their team’s buy-in and by preserving the core of what makes their school great. 

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