Adaptability – Cultivating a Critical International Development Skill

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As our community continues to self-reflect on the hard and soft skills that will be most valued in the workforce of the future, one soft skill stands out as essential and increasingly necessary for success – adaptability. It is a higher-order skill that enables international development staff to ably pivot and respond to unexpected situations. Adaptability is critical to maintaining focus on achieving the organization’s mission while functioning in a fluid, and often volatile, global environment.

If adaptability is so important, how can organizations in our community foster and cultivate it within their ranks? To answer that, we dove into the mechanics of how an adaptable person thinks and studied an adaptability skillset developed by the U.S. military to create a matrix of four skill areas tailored specifically for the international development context. We then put the matrix to work by integrating our learning and training approaches to develop and strengthen those skills.

More Than a Skill – A State of Mind

According to Dr. Susanne Cook-Greuter, strategic advisor and research director of the Vertical Development Academy and creator of the Maturity Profile, truly adaptable people operate with an expansive world view and broad perspective. The more a person develops this perspective, the more that he/she will be able to exercise increased tolerance for differences and ambiguity and greater adaptability, as well as self-reflection and ability to interact effectively with different environments.

A person’s worldview has little to do with technical knowledge. Individuals gain technical expertise through training programs, graduate-level education, and self-directed and life-long learning. But growth in an adaptability mindset occurs as individuals learn to see the same world with new eyes. They transform their orientation from a focus on self or those closest to them, to a wider perspective that encompasses progressively larger circles at the organizational, national, society and global levels. It is no wonder the international development community so values staff who are highly adaptable.

The Adaptation Skill Set

While the military context differs from that of international development, members of the armed forces similarly deal with operating environments characterized by uncertainty and unpredictability, and the skills necessary to be adaptable are similar in both contexts. For instance, the international development worker needs to adapt to new situations regularly and pivot to address changing national political forces, U.S. Government and multilateral initiatives, and private sector influences. The Institute for Defense Analysis has developed a model for adaptability, which they define as “the capacity to bring about an effective response to an altered situation.”

Based on our collective experience in training and developing learning programs for international development leaders and their staffs worldwide, we’ve adapted the Institute’s model into four primary skill areas:

Skill AreaThe ability to:
Creative ThinkingConsciously generate ideas and innovate to respond to new and unexpected situations.
Intuitive Decision-MakingUse good judgment to translate experience and knowledge into action, enabling an employee to pivot from a given course of action to another one by recognizing patterns and identifying effective courses of action.
Emotional IntelligenceBe aware of and effectively manage one’s emotions and behaviors; Effectively manage relationships with others to move in a preferred direction.
ResiliencePersist toward achieving a goal and the wherewithal to adjust to and effectively overcome unexpected obstacles.

By offering learning opportunities to develop these skills and providing staff with space for reflection, action learning and dialogue, we can cultivate a workforce that is highly adaptable.

Learning Approaches to Cultivating an Adaptable Workforce

Cultivating adaptability should be an integrated effort cutting across functional areas and technical sectors. Below are five learning approaches that we have found to be effective. Utilize them in appropriate and contextual settings, such as training courses, during team-building or other events, or as stand-alone activities to build adaptability across the organization.


A simulation immerses participants in a realistic situation or process. These include unexpected situations, either in field operations or in headquarters. Simulations should be highly interactive in small groups. The goal of these simulations is for participants to work with others to handle unexpected twists and turns while applying their technical and functional expertise.

In one example, Ms. Pando-Behnke, a blended learning expert, helped design an activity for technical specialists. Participants were presented instructions to design a project using analytical tools they had just learned. During the activity, each small group was handed a “game-changer” by the trainers, which introduced unexpected new variables into the simulation that required participants to adapt their designs on the fly. At the end of the activity, participants were given time to process how they handled in-the-moment pivots, and to discuss how the experience might carry forward in their own work. Simulations such as these stimulate creative thinking and help participants practice making difficult decisions based on available data.

Emotional Intelligence Skill Building

One of the most effective ways for staff to become more self-aware and better understand how others respond to them is through 360-degree feedback. We have employed several personal assessment instruments that have helped managers and staff gather and process 360-degree feedback related to emotional intelligence.

Participants learn about each component of emotional intelligence, including self-awareness, self-management, and relationship management, as well as techniques for strengthening skills in each of these areas. As they become more self-aware, they might practice scenarios in which they practice the skills and techniques with others in small groups. They can also develop individual action plans that identify opportunities where they can integrate their new skills into their daily work to operationalize them. Follow-up peer coaching and feedback can help reinforce learning and create space for reflection.


Improvisational comedians never know what they will say or do until they are on stage. They take prompts from the audience for their initial scenario, and then they run with it. They build on each other’s words with a “yes, and” philosophy to move their act forward.

This same technique used by comedians, conducted in an open, spontaneous and supportive atmosphere in the workplace, stimulates the creative thinking that bolsters adaptation. It also encourages effective communication by building on opportunities to collaborate. Improv can be included in training events, team meetings, lunch sessions and many other types of events. Companies such as the Mayflower Hotel, Hilton, and PBS have been using improv comedy workshops to stimulate their staff to be more creative and adaptive knowledge workers.

Peer Coaching and Feedback

Beyond events, staff can learn through peer coaching and feedback on their successes and challenges. For example, staff who meet in a workshop can gather together in the weeks that follow, ideally in groups of three to five, either in person or virtually. Mr. Haecker organized peer coaching for leadership development trainings in which participants, with instruction and guidance from the trainers, coached and provided feedback to their peers on challenges they were facing in their roles. With corporate support, MSI staff host Work Out Loud Circles to cultivate internal corporate networks and participate in peer coaching and feedback on topics of significance.

We know that continuous peer coaching and feedback provide support for practicing adaptation, emotional intelligence and creative thinking; reflecting on interpersonal interactions; and developing resilience by holding each other accountable. Ultimately, the best way to develop resilience is to keep working toward goals, stumbling through the obstacles and experiencing the successes and failures along the way. In other words, continuously getting back up on the proverbial horse is half the battle in developing resilience. By reflecting on and learning from these experiences, staff discover how to keep moving forward.

Leadership Development with a Group Coach

We have also found that a leader’s influence on his or her team members has a significant impact on group or team behavior. Incoming supervisors and team leaders can benefit from group leadership coaching with an experienced group coach. This approach helps leaders build positive and productive relationships within their cohort, share their on-the-job management and leadership experiences, learn from their peers’ experiences, seek ideas on how to troubleshoot issues, and create a safe space for reflection and dialogue.

A coach can directly but respectfully challenge mental models and world views that may be holding leaders back from gaining insight and generating breakthroughs. As leaders exhibit more of these skills and behaviors and create enabling environments for their teams, so too will staff and team members by learning from the example.

These interactive learning approaches provide opportunities for staff to apply creative thinking, intuition, emotional intelligence and resilience across technical sectors. Organizations interested in cultivating adaptability skills should review their corporate competencies for adaptability skill sets and make any necessary updates, as well as integrate one or more of the approaches mentioned here into their agency’s training and learning programs.


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