Resilience, Adaptation & Exaptation

We’ve strained our resilience. We’ve adapted. Now we’re in the realm of exaptation.

A dinosaur in flight

Resilience and Adaptation

Resilience is a critical starting point. Resilience helps us stay engaged and to recover from the buffets of our stresses and challenges. There are many demands on resilience in this crisis. However, we can’t rely solely on resilience. Resilience only carries us back to where we were before. This crisis will likely demand more from us. We are a resilient bunch. We will recover.

Adaptation is already occuring. We have quickly changed our ways of working, our lives, our strategies and our businesses to adapt to these new conditions. We will continue to adapt using the capabilities we have and the potential of our people to make things better and to improve our lives. That’s what we humans do.

However, our times are going to challenge us to go further than just adaptation. We are going to need to leverage our potential and the potential of others in ways we never thought possible before. We are going to act out beyond our known capabilities. We are going to get creative with what our potential means and what it can deliver for us.


Exaptation is a term from evolution. It is the development of the function of a trait or feature created for one purpose to support another purpose. The classic example is feathers which may have been an adaptation to provide warmth and insulation, but now enable birds, descendants of dinosaurs, to fly with grace. As an example, my Change Agent colleague, Joachim Stroh, has used the concept of exaptation to describe the way that communities adopt and invent new ways of working on collaboration platforms. Yesterday, I talked about the surgeon working as a nurse using his medical talents as needed by his colleagues now. Last night, I was reading how Archie Rose, a distiller, has now found so much succcess making hand sanitiser that it has rehired all its 20 bar staff to work across packing and customer service line for the new product. Stories of adatation and exaptation are everywhere around us. Capabilities and potential being redeployed in creative new ways to support our goals of surviving, growing and getting better.

We all have capabilities and potential that lie fallow or could be redeployed to new and creative purpose. Organisations that see this environment as a chance to cut ‘dead wood’ or to focus too narrowly on ‘core capabilities’ are missing the potential to leverage these capabilities in new, better and creative ways. ‘Shrinking to greatness’ strategies show the limits of our imagination and our leadership.

People who see one role or career or path shut down will find new ways to leverage their potential and to create new value for themselves and for others. Our role is to aid that process with questions, coaching and support. People will need to mourn but they will also need to dream new dreams to pursue this change.

We can all see what can’t be done at the moment. For those losing activities, business and roles, it feels final. We have to help people to ask “What can I do with what I have?’ We have to ask people to be bold and creative in tackling this question. If they do, the process of adaptation and exaptation will lead people to new imagination and new dreams. For some, it may be enough to change their lives and their businesses for ever.

Dinosaurs didn’t go from the ground to flight with a single step. They developed that change over a range of smaller adaptations and exaptations, building their capabilities and the functions to succeed as they go. Small changes accumulate. Capabilities build. New things become possible. New successes can be found if we hold our hope, dream, experiment, and try. We too need to look for the little step-by-step changes we can make to leverage our potential, make use of our capabilities and move forward to a better future.

Post script:

Frankly I’d swap it all my exaptation for a little exaltation. However, the magic of hope is that I continue to dream and I continue to act step-by-step, then I know that the exaltation of success (or the exaltation of an end to this) is coming too.

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