Adapt or Die--It’s an AND world.


By Peter Stonefield, Ph.D

Jack F. Product Manager, described his current challenge this way. “I used to be able to keep my head down and focus on my product and proprietary technologies in US markets. No more! Now I must do that and think globally about end-to-end solutions embracing open technologies. Where solutions used to be simple and easy to put together they are now complex, difficult and very expensive to support. I used to deal primarily with my own engineering group, finance, operations, a few suppliers, sales and outbound marketing.  Now I work with all those plus several other groups including alliance partners and service. Keep in mind, most of those groups have different agendas.


Most of my focus and energy used to be devoted to the product launch.  Now, I must do the research, formulate strategy, define the product, synchronize development with partners, launch and end the life of products, all in less than three years.


My biggest challenges? Reacting quickly to competitive moves and keeping up with the knowledge. Getting and keeping alignment around a shared vision and plan across all those boundaries. Driving for results without unproductive conflict and escalating every issue.  It is like a mine field, given the very different personalities and agendas.”



Today’s high speed, complex, unpredictable and disruptive business environment demands a new set of competencies for everyone. We are in the most innovative and integrative period in history. Everything seems to be converging at warp speed. New products, technologies, companies and services are emerging, converging and evolving into more complete and complex solutions. As a result, product and knowledge lifecycles and profit windows are shrinking.  In response, companies are trying to become more adaptive and agile. They know that they must continuously innovate to establish preemptive leadership AND at the same time adapt quickly to disruptive competitive threats.  AND they must reduce time to market and cost by executing synergistically across diverse organizations. AND they must leverage knowledge by quickly bringing the best available knowledge to constraints and opportunities as they arise. Organizational boundaries and responsibilities are becoming blurred. There are more committees and matrices and more dotted than solid lines on org charts.


Individual results used to depend primarily on one’s effectiveness within a specialization, now they must be effective there AND at the interface with multiple domains. They need to be effective in their primary role as executive, manager or individual contributor AND as collaborative leader. They need to be both specialist AND generalist, director AND lobbyist. Work well in situations that are concrete or black and white AND in big picture situations full of ambiguities, contradictions and complexity.  Success now depends on specialized knowledge AND contextual knowledge AND knowledge of other domains AND business and technical savvy.  Since no one can be sufficiently expert in all these areas, accessing and leveraging the knowledge of others is crucial.   


In a changeable adaptive enterprise, job stability and predictability are no longer reasonable assumptions. One can no longer rely on past experience alone. There are no exact role models, detailed road maps or blueprints. The only long term sustainable competitive advantage is to become agile and adaptive – to adapt thinking, strategy and behaviors for use in different conditions without degrading performance. Long term viability depends on it.


Much has been written about how to lead and navigate in uncertain, turbulent times. We are instructed to find our passion and follow it. Develop collaborative skills. Be flexible. Learn how to learn. Learn how to unlearn. Think differently. Do these seven things, practice these twelve steps. Hold these five values. Know thyself. Build on your strengths. Downplay or ignore your weaknesses.  The list grows daily. From this advice, the solution to an AND world seems to be more ANDs—longer “do better” lists.


Don’t get me wrong, I agree with much of the advice. But the systems engineer in me thinks these advisors are not seeing the critical leverage point. The problem with much of the advice is that people are creatures of habit who behave more or less automatically. For example, passion is essential when making something happen. But, people are often the least flexible about what they are most passionate about.  When obstacles emerge, passion pushes to overcome rather than seeking to first understand. Passion, unchecked, can quickly turn into frustration, anger and other counterproductive behaviors.


People tend to over identify with what they are passionate about. For example, the keep your head down mindset of the passionate “Doer” keeps them from occasionally looking up to see and maintain alignment with strategic changes.  “Mr. Right” can’t be wrong, no matter what the facts show.  A “Commander” may want to listen, but can’t pause long enough for others to feel understood.  A “Problem Solver” can’t stop the impulse to tell others what and how to do things, even when their intention is to develop other people’s problem solving skills. A “Quick Thinker” continues to be impatient and dismissive with those who can’t keep up; even though it alienates the very people whose help and support they need to be successful. A “Go Along Subordinate” can’t tell it like it is because someone may get upset with them. We all have habitual behavioral patterns that override our conscious control. The central issue is how do we become more agile and adaptive when we can’t regulate our old habitual ways of thinking and doing? 


Passionate Detachment 

So you guessed it, I’m going to add one more AND to the list. However, this is a meta AND, a leverage point, one that enables easier execution of other ANDs. Practice ‘passionate detachment’.


Passion, guided by purpose, provides the energy, commitment and persistence to leap and make things happen in the face of obstacles.  But, passion also creates blind spots and unproductive conflict.  Detachment enables the self control and perspective to more objectively understand situations, make better decisions and take more effective actions. But, detachment can appear as disinterest, indifference or uncaring and lead to a disconnect with others.


When passion and detachment are converged, you get the upside of both without the downsides. A mindset emerges in which passionate commitment and objective detachment oscillate.  Passion can be momentarily paused without losing commitment. Breeding the energy, drive and persistence of passion with the objectivity and flexibility of detachment enables one to adapt their strategy to changing situations and remain aligned with purpose. Think about it as recombining psychological DNA or psychological sex.


With ‘passionate detachment’, “Mr. Right” can be passionate about coming up with the right answer AND detached enough to include the ideas of others.  The “Quick Thinker” can be quick AND patient enough to let others contribute. The “Problem Solver” can pause their impulse to tell others how to do things AND enlarge the problem to include developing other people’s problem solving skills.


The key to developing ‘passionate detachment’ is “stepping back” or dis-identifying from the passion in the moment. The discovery of a deeper sense of “I-ness” gives one a more reflective and objective perspective from which they can align the passion with purpose.


But, that’s not all. ‘Passionate detachment’ accelerates the learning of new adaptive ANDs or “success strategies” with mindsets that complement existing strengths. Take the case of Joe M. a Senior Staff engineer for a major computer company. Joe was focused and passionate about improving system reliability.  He was recognized for his extraordinary technical skills and his ability to deliver results.  When faced with obstacles, he intellectually and passionately overpowered anything in his path.


A few years ago, Joe came face to face with the new AND world. New strategic partners, technologies and other organizational changes introduced new complexities and challenges to his work.   Joe’s success now depended much more on his ability to engage engineers throughout the company and its partners to follow his technical lead.  As Joe quickly discovered, the engineers and managers of those other groups often had different priorities.  Overpowering passion was no longer viable. Joe had to adapt or die.


Whenever we are faced with a new, novel or challenging situation our subconscious mind tries to organize a new adaptive “success strategy.” Carl Rogers describes the intimate relationship between adapting and creativity this way; “The mainspring of creativity appears to be man's tendency to actualize potentialities as the organism forms new relationships to the environment. This tendency may become deeply buried and awaits only the proper conditions to be released and expressed.”    

Using guided imagery, I guided Joe into his creative subconscious mind to discover what is already trying to happen.  His metaphorical image of his current success strategy was a fire breathing “Tyrannosaurus Rex” flaming anything in his path. As the “T REX”, he demanded more of himself and others, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. His “T REX’s” mantra, “There is always a way to get it done. I have no time for idiotic politics and little patience with engineers who can’t grasp high level technical analysis.”


His metaphorical image for his new adaptive AND was a “Deer” in the woods acutely aware of its surroundings. Guided by the image, he began to spend time sensing the challenges and priorities of other groups and relating his proposals to their challenges.  He told me, “at first the focus on understanding other people’s world felt awkward and foreign-not like me. My impatient “T REX” flamed the “Deer” at first. However, as other groups started to show more interest and began to invite my participation, my “T REX” became more manageable.” Learning theorist Albert Bandura views symbols as vehicles of thought that enable people to store the information required to guide future behaviors. Identifying with the symbol turns it into an “attractor” that seeks relevant knowledge and organizes the various means of the mind to its ends. With a little positive feedback it takes on a life of its own and over time becomes just another role, habit or identity


With ‘passionate detachment’ Joe now has the passion of the “T REX” and the sensitive mindset and quickness of the “Deer.” A few months later, people started to experience Joe differently. They began to respect and appreciate the drive of his “T REX.” Some were even drawn to it. In effect, Joe bred the “T REX” and the “Deer” to create a new, more adaptive species, the “Endearing-T REX.”  The “Endearing-T REX” identification became the platform for his new roles as Collaborative Leader, Thought Leader and Knowledge Coach.  


A PPG Manager, Miguel O’s image for his current “success strategy” was an airplane.  He associated this with a past role as technology coach and teacher.  When the company was changing over to a new technology he went around the world training peers in the new technology. He loved and mastered role.  He described it as, “learning a lot about how to be a culturally sensitive “Diplomat” and avoid unnecessary problems.”


The image for his new complementary next step was a fierce cartoon like mouth with “Big Teeth” stating “I want it done now.”  He recognized the implications immediately. As a manager, he was very diplomatic and sensitive to relationships. In fact, he was reluctant to take a promotion because he was anxious about changing relationships.  He projected this sensitivity onto his group and was reluctant to confront problem behaviors and make changes that would disturb relationships.  He saw “Big Teeth” as developing his ability to passionately direct and make things happen.  Passionate detachment helped him manage “Big Teeth” and the “Diplomat.” He now could be passionately direct and demanding one moment and very diplomatic the next.


In today’s AND world, success is driven by how adaptive people become. You can’t build an agile, innovative, adaptive, changeable and high performing enterprise without adaptive individuals.  In biology, there is a Law of Requisite Behavior.  It states that cells that organize themselves with the greatest range of effective behavioral responses will not only have the greatest chance of survival, but will lead the other cells.  Practicing passionate detachment empowers people with the properties of stem cells.  They gain the flexibility to continuously adapt and grow in many directions. They can accelerate the learning of whatever AND is needed to adapt successfully to the challenges they face.



Peter Stonefield, BSEE, MA, PhD. is President of Stonefield Learning Group, consultant, psychologist, the author of numerous articles. He was an electronic engineer, marketing director and sales executive for the Bunker-Ramo Corporation. 


He has successfully completed over 150 consulting engagements, created more than 20 different training and development programs and coached over 100 executives. He has facilitated the development of 10 knowledge leveraging “Communities of Practice” in engineering and marketing organizations.  His client list includes Apple Computer, Baxter Laboratories, Dow Chemical, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Intel, US Government, PPG and Sun Microsystems. He was the principal consultant to the winner of the President's Quality Award for Managing Change. 




He recently drafted a vision for computing for Sun Microsystems. His is currently introducing Agile Leadership- a breakthrough interpersonal communications, individual agility, adaptive learning and leadership development program. Peter’s mission is to catalyze and accelerate the evolution of organizations and people.


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