Stability is a dangerous illusion: a brief review of “Adaptability” by Max McKeown

It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory. ~ W. Edwards Deming

In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists. ~ Eric Hoffer


Everyone talks about it, many fear it, but what do you do with it? The newness and novelty of change can be exciting or the uncertainty can be crippling. The faster and bigger the change, the more crucial our ability to adapt. Those individuals, companies, and even nations, who have long-term success are those who can successfully adapt from where the world was to where it’s going. Yesterday’s success strategy is tomorrow’s failure if the world moves on without us.

Adaptation is vital, but how do we adapt? How do we make the leap from doing what we know has worked in the past to what we think might work in the future? Big questions. Max McKeown (@maxmckeown) offers insights, rules, and steps for successful adaptation in his book Adaptability: The art of winning in an age of uncertainty.

He states, “Adaptability is the most important of human characteristics…. All failure is a failure to adapt. All success is successful adaptation.” (emphasis added). Think about that for a while: all failure, from the fall of nations to your cousin’s ugly divorce to giving up on your goal fit back in your old size is failure to adapt. Failure to change and adjust and evolve our strategies and actions.

Yet, just adapting is not enough. It is completely possible to adapt and still fail. The right solution at the wrong time for the wrong situation isn’t of much use, never mind the wrong solution. Likewise, just succeeding may not be enough either. Max identifies four possible outcomes of any situation, based on how well we adapt to that specific situation: collapsing (this is bad), surviving /coping (better, but not necessarily pleasant), thriving (what we often aim for), and transcending (game changing good).

Max’s focus, as stated in the introduction, is on winning. “Not just winning by playing the same rules, but playing better. And not just winning where there has to be a loser. My interest is in understanding more about how social groups can move beyond the existing rules to find games that allow more people to win more often.” I love this concept: why survive when you can thrive and why thrive when you can transcend?

So often our focus is just on getting by, getting through, putting the change behind us and returning to the way things were. Imagine what we could do if we elevated our game and consciously approached adaptation as an opportunity to radically expand the playing field; to get beyond the silly zero-sum games where someone has to lose in order for us to win; to create the rising tide that raises all ships?

To help us shift our approach to thriving and transcending, Max identifies 17 rules for successful adaption grouped into three steps. Everything is discussed with examples from an incredible variety of topics, some ancient, some still developing even as the book was published. He looks at adaptability through the lens of  Formula One racing, ants, the publishing industry, orange juice, Mini Coopers, NFL, Easter Island, Netflix, Starbucks, an Italian village, a women’s movement in Liberia, video games, Spiderman the Musical, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, baseball, the Occupy movement, Lego, Tata Motors, and more. Through it all, the ideas, rules, and strategies presented are relevant to everyone seeking to adapt better and play bigger.

I am a big fan of Max’s writing style. He consistently makes the complicated simple, the difficult understandable, the philosophical real-world relevant, and the seemingly ordinary brilliant. He has an easy to read approach, but it took me a while to get through the book because I found myself spending time highlighting, underlining, making notes in the margins, and staring off into space contemplating the ideas presented. Good, good stuff.

Adaptation is never easy. It requires letting go of the known, changing our perception, and jumping into uncertainty. Max shows us some ways to make the leap in the right direction.

Note: In the spirit of transparency and full disclosure, you should know I received a free review copy from the publisher. You might have too if you’d been paying attention when they offered them on Twitter.    🙂


  1. Thanks for sharing Broc. I have added a new book to my “must read” list. And apparently I need to pay more attention to Twitter! One more social media tool I am still attempting to undertand completely.


    1. You bet, Laurie. Max is fantastic and you can’t go wrong with any of his books. I reviewed another a while back. The review is in the “Reads and Reviews” section on the blog. He isn’t as well known in the States as he should be, but I hope that changes soon. Brilliant. He posts a lot of chapters and excerpts on his website: which should give you a good idea of whether or not you like him. A nice starter: Hell Hath No Fury Like Talent Spurned


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