March 29, 2017

Effective Leaders Learn to Change It Up

Sr. Lecturer Homa Bahrami
Sr. Lecturer Homa Bahrami

Understanding how to adapt in a fluid, competitive world

If there’s one skill that today’s executive may want to hone, it’s the ability to adapt and transform.

Homa Bahrami, a senior lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, studies knowledge workers in the technology sector where flexibility is essential. She coined the term, “super-flexibility,” and has developed a playbook to teach professionals how to transform the way they organize, lead, interact, and drive change continuously.

“Super-flexibility is the ability to engage in a constant balancing act. What do I need to maintain stability, but where do I need to adapt my team, structure, or product,” says Bahrami. “Flexibility is the secret sauce.” 

And that secret sauce is the topic of Bahrami’s new online course, Accelerating Change Readiness & Agility.

Bahrami says enrolled executives find the program engaging and transformative because they work through their actual workplace challenges during the program. That opportunity allows them to become better equipped to develop real change or react rapidly to change.

First on the menu: understandings how receptive or unreceptive to change executives are and what their natural aptitude for driving change is. Bahrami says as change agents, executives must be self-aware.

Bahrami breaks down change readiness into five types of “adaptive DNA.” Each person tends to have an innate response for dealing with change but may learn how to adapt to alternate approaches to create change, depending on what the situation requires. These DNA types are:

Resilient DNA people see a problem and like to fix it.
Hedging DNA people are planners; they think about different scenarios and “what if” contingencies.
Agile DNA people prefer to implement the minimum necessary.
Robust DNA people are visionary and persistent.
Versatile DNA people have strong sensors and can adapt their style when interacting with different people.

A crisis manager is an example of someone with resilient DNA while salespeople tend to have versatile DNA, according to Bahrami’s research. Innovative, disruptive entrepreneurs who thrive on change and uncertainty possess robust DNA.

Bahrami’s work is also based on three types of adaptation. Forced adaptation is when change occurs because people are forced to change. Accidental adaptation is a by-product of timing and luck; it is about being at the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time. Bahrami says the third kind or deliberate adaptation is the most powerful. It is about intentional adaptation, knowing where you want to go and setting out to get there.

“Former Cisco CEO John Chambers said we don’t have competition, we compete against market transition,” says Bahrami. “Cisco is a giant organization but how do they successfully reinvent products and services on an ongoing basis?” 

Bahrami’s course teaches the lessons of companies like Cisco, but she also designed the course to help program participants work on their own super-flexibility topics. For example:

  • How do I change the way my company interacts with customers?
  • We want to introduce new products geared toward millennials.
  • I want to change the way my team operates.

Organizational culture also can enable or block change and agility. Profs. Jennifer Chatman and Jo-Ellen Pozner partnered with Bahrami to teach a module on diagnosing and leveraging one’s organizational culture for flexibility.

As she continues to study super-flexibility, Bahrami says her work has shown that the best way to initiate change is by taking a scientific approach.

“Take mini steps, experiment, iterate, and have an open mind,” says Bahrami. “When you run a marathon, you don’t think about the 25 miles ahead, you only think about that next step, then that next block, and pretty soon, you have reached the goal line.”

Bahrami’s class is offered through Berkeley-Haas’ Center for Executive Education and is available on ExecOnline. The next program begins May 2.

She also plans to teach an elective course on the topic in the Evening & Weekend Berkeley MBA Program in Fall 2016.

By Pamela Tom




Topics:    Research News