(866) 488-9228
Get High Performance
Tips In Your Inbox

How Does Inability to Adapt Affect Team Innovation?

Author: Eric Bean, PhD

Are you more comfortable adopting new strategies than a monkey? Apparently not. In 2019 research by Watzek and colleagues, the levels of cognitive complacency or laziness of capuchin monkeys and rhesus monkeys was compared with that of humans. (Before describing the results, I should warn you that capuchin monkeys are true innovators. They are notorious for generating novel solutions, behaviors, and cultural practices.)

In the study, all participants were taught a sequence of steps that led to a reward. After learning this sequence, they were presented with an alternative and significantly more efficient strategy. After being presented with the more efficient strategy, 70% of the monkeys adopted the new sequence, while only 1.7% of the human participants adopted the new strategy. Eventually, 100% of the monkeys adopted the new strategy, while only 39% of human participants adopted the new strategy – even after they watched another human do it on video!

Humans Resist Change

This study highlights the internal hurdles we have when adopting new approaches and to innovating. We crave the comfort of the known knowns. The ability to adapt not only plays a big role in adopting new technologies but also in innovating and creating new business segments, jobs, and opportunities that were not there before.

Developing the ability to adapt and then innovate begins with an understanding of what adaptability is comprised of. The team at AQai spent years researching and developing a robust model of adaptability which includes 3 core dimensions (Ability, Character, and Environment) and 17 sub dimensions. The model examines not only the skills and mental frameworks that support adaptation, but also character traits and the environment and how those positively influence or hinder adaptability. With regards to developing an innovative team, three sub-dimensions reign supreme:

  • Unlearning
  • Mental Flexibility
  • Team Support


Innovating demands the ability to solve existing problems quickly by generating novel solutions and letting go of what we already know. Unlearning is the skill to intentionally let go of previous knowledge and reassess your approach based on both new and old information. Examining over 2,100 users of the Adaptability assessment, the scientists at AQai found that Work Stress (one of the sub-dimensions of Environment core dimension) was negatively correlated with Unlearning, indicating that as work stress increases, the ability to unlearn is reduced. Getting better at unlearning not only requires an examination of how the work environment supports or hinders unlearning and innovation, but also requires self-awareness, courage, and a growth mindset. To simplify it, go ahead and try to fix what is not broken.

Mental Flexibility

Mental flexibility refers to the ability to accept, appreciate, and embrace competing demands or problems. It allows one to see tensions or trade-offs in everyday or business life as opportunities that allow innovative ways to learn and ultimately adapt. Research on mental flexibility has demonstrated that it is about moving between different tasks simultaneously, applying concepts from one context toward solving a problem in another unrelated or new situation. It’s also about evaluating strategies and generating novel solutions. Becoming more mentally flexible involves becoming more comfortable being uncomfortable. When people are experiencing stress in novel or uncomfortable environments, they are less likely to think rationally and access long-term memory efficiently. If we can trigger our curiosity in those environments rather than our anxiety, we are more likely to be creative and positive in generating innovative ideas.

Team Support

Finally, team support plays a significant role in innovation because if teams do not have psychological safety, they will resist moving outside of their comfort zone and taking risks to explore new ideas. Team support is positively correlated with both unlearning and mental flexibility.

In order to create a team that innovates, capitalizes on new market opportunities, and generates positive disruption, you need to enhance your team’s ability to adapt. Begin with an assessment of adaptability to target which areas are in need of further development to become more comfortable being uncomfortable.

Need Support Developing Team Adaptability?

Don’t wait any longer to optimize your team for the future. HigherEchelon is a trusted partner who will guide you and your team toward a resilient and adaptable future through our expertise helping organizations win in the complex modern business environment. Through Adaptability Quotient Assessments and training, we equip teams to meet today’s ever-changing advances and demands.

Our team has extensive experience providing resilience and adaptability training and education for C-Level executives, senior government/military professionals, surgeons, professional sports teams, government civilians, and business professionals that unlocks potential, productivity, and overall work performance for the entire organization.

Call us at 866-488-9228 or fill out this form to learn more and get started.

More Resources

Watch a case study video showing our approach to high performance in a rapidly growing aerospace and defense organization:

Eric Bean, PhD walks us through how to perform under pressure in this short video:

Check out Eric’s podcast Coaching Through Stories on Spotify and Apple Podcasts!