Do You Adopt or Adapt?

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What About Bob? is one of our favorite family movies. A memorable scene has a mentally troubled Bill Murray (Bob) telling his psychologist, “There are two kinds of people in the world – those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t. My ex-wife loves him.”

Bob provided me with a good laugh, but he also taught me a principle about how our minds have a natural propensity to sort people into one of two categories. For example, consider how often you have been asked variations of these questions:

  • Are you single or married?
  • Do you prefer the big idea or taking care of the details?
  • Are you more of an introvert or an extrovert?
  • Did you grow up in the country or the city?
  • Are you pro or anti-vaccination?

While these generalizations may not always be accurate, we use them because they help us make sense of our world. In today’s blog I’m going to reveal one of my sorting secrets – determining if people are adopters or adapters. Here is how it works.

In our day-to-day lives we often encounter new ideas. Sometimes you discover something so helpful that you want to use it in your own life or organization.  Here are a few examples of how this occurs (I’ll bet you have experienced more than two of them):

  • You hear of a successful exercise program that could help you lose that extra weight.
  • Someone tells you about a new business book that will help you solve a business challenge.
  • A conference speaker provides an example of a successful change they made and now you want to do it as well.
  • A friend invites you to join a multi-level marketing program that is guaranteed to be a cash-cow.

I believe that peoples’ responses to situations such as these can be sorted into two buckets:

The Adopters

Adopters can be summarized by the word practice. They look at others, find what makes them successful and then work to develop the same practice(s) in their own lives. The hope is that they can experience the same benefit that someone else did by using their winning formula.

The Adapters

This crowd can be summarized with the word principle. Like adopters, they also look at others and find what makes them successful. However, instead of cultivating the same practice, they seek to find the principle(s) which underlie their success. Then, they determine how they can uniquely apply this principle to their own lives.

My students recently spent time studying an idea called organizational contingency theory. This concept espouses that there is no best way to organize a corporation, to lead a company, or to make decisions. Instead, the optimal course of action is contingent (dependent) upon the internal and external situation. To put it differently, contingency theory means that those who adopt the organizational style of others are less likely to succeed than those who adapt a style to fit their own needs.

Contingency theory is the driving force behind adapters. They realize that you and I can do the exact same thing and yield different results.  Adapters realize that their body does not respond the same way to exercise as yours. Or that your conflict resolution method may not work for them because it involves two totally different people. Adapters are different because they search for the principle behind the desired result. When you discover the principle, you can then adapt it to work in your uniqu situation.

We all fluctuate between adopting and adapting. My goal is to strive to adapt more and adopt less. That’s my sort-secret. Well, it’s one of them…


Head ShotJeff Suderman is a futurist, professor and consultant who works in the field of organizational development. He works with clients to improve leadership, teamwork, organizational alignment, strategy and organizational Future-Readiness. He resides in Palm Desert, California. Twitter: @jlsuderman

1 comment

  1. Pingback: The Three C’s of an Effective Hire | Jeff Suderman

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