The Five Principles of an Adaptive Operating Model

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Operating models are really difficult to change.

Most are too big, too slow and too expensive to be effective. And on top of this, we’re in a world of constantly shifting customer demands and the democratisation of technology, which has lowered the barriers to entry in most industries. There just isn’t time to spend months or even years trying to perfect an operating model and delivery patterns on paper to then find ways to back them into a business. 

At Sullivan & Stanley, we’ve always been believers in five core principles to an Adaptive Operating Model that organisations trying to address these challenges should adopt. This means rather than spending huge amounts of time and money on trying to write down how a business could work around these, it instead allows patterns and ways of working to emerge through exemplar teams who live and breathe these principles. These five core principles are as follows:


Everything designed around people and what they care about, whether they are employees or customers.


Recognises that businesses are dependent on an ecosystem, internally and externally via partners. Integration into the ecosystem has to be seamless and easy, to minimise friction and disruption, effectively running it like a platform. 


Shifting demand and change from projects and programmes defined by one or two individuals, to insight-driven continuous improvement and optimisation of products, services and experiences. Focus less on the number of things being delivered, more on the outcomes that really matter and an objective view on what will make the difference.


..not organisation. Spin teams up and down based on challenges to solve and demand. If they are not adding value, the teams die and resources re-deployed elsewhere. Put less importance on job titles and departments and more emphasis on networks of expertise and capabilities coming together to deliver value.


Independent, discrete, re-usable capabilities that allow a plug and play approach using well defined standardised interfaces, to be able to react faster.


Proving that new ways of working are successful can be difficult if a) you are changing too much at once and b) if the ‘organisational antibodies’ are allowed to take hold. 

We use an approach which we call a “Glass Tube”. It focuses on one discrete area of change (a problematic programme for example), allowing a ‘narrow and deep’ immersion into agility and the adaptive operating model principles to emerge. Only when the new ways of working have stabilised and been shown to be effective do we consider scaling across the organisation.

“Glass Tube” is a metaphor really, we place the team in a virtual glass tube, where everyone in the organisation can see what they are doing, but nobody can get in and disrupt the work. 

It’s really important to ensure the work they are doing is meaningful and complex enough that the resulting patterns can be reused elsewhere, removing reasonable reasons not to, that often stop companies being able to scale new ways of working. 

The team are highly visible in the centre of the business and become an exemplar, with their ceremonies open for anyone with an interest to attend. Stand-Ups, Planning Games, Retros, Showcases. But only those who are a) named as a sponsor or stakeholder or b) in the team itself can speak or ask questions, so we minimise disruption. 


In Practice

The principles make sense to people and are a much simpler way of communicating and understanding what needs to change. And, bringing the principles to life through an exemplar team in a “Glass Tube” creates momentum and a movement.

We remind our clients that you can’t have a target operating model when the target is always moving! Operating models and behaviours don’t travel by Powerpoint, and the organisation structure comes last. 

We’re working in this way with several clients in both the public and private sectors, making breakthroughs in short periods that would have otherwise taken them many many months. And we’ll leave them in a much better place than when we started, with a sustainable change capability that enables them to tackle the volatility we’re all going to have to live with for many years to come. 

If you’re interested in understanding how you too could build an Adaptive Operating Model through this approach, get in touch with us today.

Written by
Sullivan & Stanley