In order to survive in the increasingly frenetic, rapidly evolving world of business, organizations must disrupt or be disrupted- even when that means disrupting your own business.

That can’t happen without a paradigm shift in the way companies approach innovation and change. Corporations must recognize that organizational adaptation is social. Successful adaptation requires an ambidextrous approach to organizational culture and is predicated on the way people are linked up far more than it is on traditional, top-down change processes.

“The top down approach of thinking about change, the way we think about depending on leaders to get it resourced, it’s not exactly going away but that’s the old mindset,”

says Michael Arena, whose new book, Adaptive Space: How GM and other Companies are Disrupting Themselves and Transforming into Agile Organizations is the product of a decade of research.

Michael Arena has long lived on the boundary between academia and corporate America. The Chief Talent Officer at General Motors and former SVP of Leadership Development at Bank of America is also a guest lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania. Michael also spent two years as a visiting scientist at the MIT Media Lab where he studied the intersection of human behavior, innovation and social connectivity.

Michael will be speaking at Innov8rs Miami in February 2019 – so we’ve put together a few key insights from his work as a teaser for his talk.

Defining Adaptive Space

The reason some organizations are agile, and others aren’t is because of something Michael calls “adaptive space.” All organizations have pockets of entrepreneurial activity but not all of them are able to pull the innovations out of those pockets and into the mainstream organizational culture. To do so requires turning your company into an adaptive space; one focused on freedom, transparency, and trust.

At GM, Michael says, “What we’re doing is trying to become more agile in the way we think about connecting up those entrepreneurial pockets so that ideas, again, can freely be explored, exchanged, and debated throughout the organization.”

The 4 Ds

Michael’s book begins with the “4 Ds” that he believes are essential to making a company adaptive: Discovery, Development, Diffusion, and Disruption. These core concepts flow together to create a path to adaptive spaces.

Discovery means paying attention to the market, constantly being on the lookout for new possibilities, gaps that require bridging and needs that must be filled. Discovery is facilitated by “brokers” according to Arena. Brokers are the people within your company who seek out and engage others throughout the company to “foster discovery connections that enhance the flow of ideas.”

Development turns the insights generated by discovery and turns them into actionable ideas. Small, agile teams that are deeply connected are best suited to development. Michael has focused a great deal of his work on social connections. Having many redundant connections within a group creates stronger social cohesion and makes small teams like this exponentially more effective.

Diffusion deals with the movement of ideas throughout an organization. Again, this relies on social connections. The people crucial to this step are what Arena calls “energizers” – People who promulgate positivity surrounding new ideas, helping them travel through the social fabric of the company faster, building up support and gaining traction as they go.

All of this brings us to the fourth D: Disruption. Not just any disruption, Arena is talking about positive, internal disruption. This means looking to the future, anticipating what’s coming next, and proactively disrupting yourselves before you can be disrupted negatively from without.

Opening Up Adaptive Spaces

Once you’ve created an organizational culture that can accept and make use of adaptive spaces, it’s time to start opening them up within your company. Michael offers some important insights to doing so effectively.

Engage the Edges: Focus on the extremes. Find the customers and employees who are on the cutting edge and pay attention to their interests and behavior. This helps to identify emergent needs and anticipate new ones. It also helps organizations to map previously uncharted territory.

Find a Friend: Social connectivity at its most basic level. Arena says that people often make the mistake of thinking that they have to get permission from administration to make something happen. Instead, he says, “Go think about what’s interesting to you, partner with someone else and make something small happen.”

Follow the Energy: Dr. Arena talks a great deal about the “emotional contagion of positive energy.” This contagion can flow through social connections and organizational networks feeding ideas, allowing them to flourish and gain traction. To fertilize this contagion, Michael has held several energy events at GM to showcase innovation initiatives. He makes sure to seed these events with “energizers” to aid in positive diffusion.

Embrace Conflict: Conventional management wisdom focuses a great deal on mitigating conflict. Managing, reducing, minimizing, resolving, avoiding, and so on. Rarely, is one counselled to actually embrace conflict, but that’s exactly what Michael Arena proposes leaders, professionals, and organizations should do.

“Conflict is essential to advancing ideas because resistance to new ideas generates a pressure-testing effect,” he said. “Conflict makes ideas better. It is resistance to resistance that drains energy and prevents new ideas from being exposed to light, honed and adopted.”


Arena has several transformative initiatives currently in the works at General Motors. One of the most interesting is GM2020 – a “bottoms up emergent movement dedicated to how can we reinvent the future of work today.” They are looking at what key imperatives emergent workforces are going to demand. The four main areas they are looking at are the talent gap, connected simplicity, sustainability and purpose and innovation. What they’ve found reinforces Michael’s fundamental belief: a need for connectivity over complexity and a need to be a part of something innovative.

Here’s the recording of a webinar we did recently with Michael Arena: