The Llama Whisperer: How Adaptability and Adaptive Capacity Support Reliable and Safe Performance

In a recent blog post several weeks ago I described an unexpected situation that required me to chase and catch a llama that had escaped from her pen. I learned a lot that day about paying attention to small indications of impending failure, but that was only half the story. Here is the rest of the story, which explains how adaptability and adaptive capacity are components of reliable (and safe) performance.

In my last post you may have read how the llama escaped and that my family and I had to catch her. This was no small feat, and was a task extremely unfamiliar to me. I have never had to catch a llama, nor was I sure what I was going to do when I caught her (if I caught her). So, I tried what seemed like normal attempts to coax her by talking nice to her (or what I thought was nice). When that didn’t work I enlisted the help of my son, who attempted to coax her with a bucket of food; she was not interested. After attempting to herd her in the direction we wanted her to go, we realized that it was too easy for her to bypass us and ultimately she wanted to do what she wanted to do. My next move was to call for assistance and ask some experts. These were additional family members who knew the llama better than I did. Ultimately, it took two more people, including another family member who was able to talk in some kind of llama-speak, put a leash around her neck, and walk her back to her pen.

The main point I learned (in addition to paying attention to weak signals of risk) was that llama catching requires adaptability, fairly deep levels of adaptive capacity, and the willingness to seek help and diverse opinions when the need to adapt is recognized. What is most interesting to me is how this situation is not unlike situations we face in our work organizations. Most of us don’t catch llamas for a living, but don’t we face unexpected situations at work? How often do high-hazard operations take place the same way every time? Routine operations are kind of like snowflakes-they look similar from a distance, but up close we can see there are differences. When I was a Marine Corps Aviator, one of the critical skills all aircrew were expected to possess was called “Adaptability/Flexibility”1, which is a tenet of Crew Resource Management. In many operations hazards may present themselves in new ways, or the operational environment itself may be different from what was planned and expected. Rigid approaches may often work to the detriment of safe mission outcomes. Two concepts may be able to help us deal with unexpected conditions and the need to change: adaptability and adaptive capacity.

Adaptability may be viewed as the ability of a worker, team, or organization to adjust tasks, procedures, tactics, or strategies to contend with the work at hand, when the original plans fail to work. Adaptive capacity may be viewed as the level to which we can adapt before crossing a threshold (such as a safety boundary) and experience a significant failure or mishap. When operational teams commence work and realize that their original approach is not working, either because the job is different, the hazards are different, or the environment is not what was expected (or due to numerous other reasons) sticking with the original plan can sometimes be worse than adapting. Rigid absolute rules that do not allow for upper or lower limits and team initiative may restrict operational teams from doing their work safely, leaving them in the position of either complying with the absolute rules and performing work in a less-safe manner, or creating their own procedural work-arounds and risk getting reprimanded for violating rules. Does either option sound attractive? Of course, some rules must be inviolable absolutes, such as 100% fall protection when working at heights, but do organizations sometimes create one-size-fits-all rules just because they sound good, without thinking through the consequences? Providing operational teams with strategies to adapt (such as additional resources, personnel on-call to provide assistance, and adaptive rules) may help them maintain safe performance while getting the job done. This must be balanced with an understanding of when adaptive capacity goes too far. Adapting too much can breach safety thresholds and leave crews at risk. By setting adaptive capacity thresholds teams may have an out and know when to call a halt to work. I am not claiming these approaches are easy and they will likely require highly technical and competent team members, but if the effort is put into developing this type of approach your organization may realize benefits.

So, if you have never had to catch a llama, what are your stories about adaptability and adaptive capacity? Do you or your teams face unexpected situations at work and do you have to find ways to safely adapt to get the job done? How do you do so safely? 

If you would like to learn more about how adaptability, adaptive capacity, and resilience may enhance operations and safety performance, you may be interested in V-Speed’s Team Leadership and Resource Management Training. Also, in my upcoming book, Team Leadership in High Hazard Environments: Performance, Safety, and Risk Management Strategies for Operational Teams, I will discuss the concept of adaptability and adaptive capacity and how it relates to safe team performance. If you would like to join my email subscriber list I will begin sending some of the information I compiled while writing my manuscript (joining is easy-just a first name and email address). If you liked this post, please share it, comment, and/or subscribe. Thanks for reading, and have a great and safe day!  

1. United States. Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. NATOPS General Flight and Operations Instruction OPNAVINST 3710.7U. Washington D.C.: Department of the Navy, 2009. Print.