A Fine Balance: Control and Adaptability at work

Leaders are constantly challenged to strike a delicate balance between control and adaptability. On one hand, maintaining control is essential for ensuring efficiency, consistency, to meet KPIs, manage change, and create stability within an organisation. On the other hand, the need to be adaptive and responsive to emerging needs is crucial for staying competitive and relevant in a dynamic marketplace, as well as ensuring services can meet a range of competing customer or community needs, manage limited resources, and find new opportunities.

 While adaptations are allowed and accepted, there’s often a nagging concern about losing control and opening the gates to chaos. How do we reconcile the need for adaptability with the imperative to manage resources wisely?

The answer lies in reframing the way we think about adaptability and control. Instead of being opposing forces, what if we see them as complementary aspects of effective management? What if adaptability becomes about organising ourselves to respond swiftly to changing circumstances while still staying aligned with clear organisational goals?

This article by Rob Cousins at OpenChange explores three ways to go about this.

Seek progress in a purposeful direction (more than hitting targets)

Rather than fixating solely on hitting targets and milestones with linear plans to reach high level objectives, organisations should prioritise progress in a clear direction. Often we can see only so far ahead, or to the next challenge coming down the road.  This recognises all the factors outside of control (market dynamics, shifts in relationships), and creates space to adapt with possibilities yet to be identified.   Tools  such as ‘horizons’ can help manage this tension of seeking control, yet creating space to adapt.

Horizons plan out in detail what we expect to happen in the short term, with a less detailed view of where we hope to be in the mid-term, and long term.  This allows the organisation to put detail and specificity in longer term plans as the progress is made in the short term, and as new information and emerging priorities arise.

One organisation sought to establish an innovation capability, and developed 5 ‘horizons’ to understand how this capability can grow over time, to help it invest the right amount, in the right things, in the right ways, at the right time, in context of other organisational challenges that arose.


Image: Overview of 5 horizons as the innovation function grew and matured.

Participatory process with workers (more than following instructions)

How do we connect with the creativity, energy and purpose of our greatest asset, whilst remaining in control of the work? Our staff are often the source of ingenuity and realistic ideas for creating the changes and improvements organisations seek.  They are often also astutely aware of the constraints the organisations must operate within (whether these are cost, time, capacity, existing tools/machinery, etc).  We can expand the range of people who have and use the information about the limitations we must work within.

As leaders we can share these constraints with our staff as boundaries in which our creative thinking and problem solving need to stay within. Being fully aware of the constraints we have, we can be confident that actions are taken within the realms of what’s possible, desirable and purposeful.

As an example, one business was struggling with rostering staff during Covid restrictions.  They couldn’t balance the individual needs of everyone and their business, and each attempt made the situation worse.  So, they gave it to their staff to solve.  This started with knowing all the constraints they had (employment law, financial viability, meeting the different individual needs of staff), and identifying what success looks like. The staff created rosters themselves, in a way that the company could accept.

Platforms that connect people (more than managing tasks)

Another approach to enable adaptation whilst keeping the work on course is to connect people in ways encourage collaboration. Often we need people to share their ideas and creativity to ‘make’ of ‘do’ something. Traditional online tools for managing work programmes have a primary focus on tasks and delivery (eg Trello, Monday.com, kanban boards) and  do not foster understanding between people, creative and lateral thinking, or facilitate connections that make the tasks more purposeful.

People need more opportunities to connect and make sense of opportunities together, beyond scheduled meetings that focus on achievements and interdependencies.  Tools are available that put connecting people as the central organising principle, with transparency of what is contributed and the direction it is heading in, with little need for structured workshops and meetings.

Some platforms support active collaboration over the work being done (eg Miro, Mural).  Many companies developing products use Miro to enable participation and creative thinking – anyone permitted can access the content of a project or initiative anytime, to learn from others and add their views to issues.  It helps people connect over the actual content of an initiative, and contribute to what’s actually happening in it.

Other platforms focus on connecting people over shared needs (eg Circle, Hive).  A major utilities company uses Hive to move problem solving to the front lines, and better deploy resources across their teams, without needing to run lower-level decisions up the hierarchy.


Embracing adaptability does not need to cause chaos or a loss of control. It is possible to set work up to succeed through transparency and connecting people with purpose.

The key is to focus on progress made in a clear direction, bringing staff into the problem solving with full knowledge of the opportunities and constraints, using tools that connect our people to foster collaboration.

Wellington Regional Leadership Committee

100 Cuba Street, Wellington
New Zealand

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