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The 8 Dimensions of Adaptability for Project Managers

PM adaptibility

The 8 dimensions of adaptability that apply specifically to project managers is an idea based on the following body of research:


The ability to navigate troubled waters and maintain emotional calm, all while churning out a successful project is a highly sought-after trait, known as adaptability.

Adaptability is an important attribute for all leaders, so it isn’t just in demand in the project management world. 

I read a few articles trending recently that assert that this soft skill is actually the #1 common denominator among successful people.

Adapting means adjusting effectively to change with some kind of positive outcome. It’s a type of resilience that serves a person well not just at work, but in all facets of life.

However, being able to adapt to shifting conditions is particularly important for project management. That’s why dealing with uncertain situations is part and parcel of the role of project manager. 

This is old news, but in fact, it’s been historically difficult to measure someone’s ability to adapt. For example, how would you go about screening someone for this?

In this article, we’ll talk about adaptability for project managers and what the research says about how to essentially vet someone for this invaluable quality/skill.

What is adaptability and how does it relate to project management?

Adaptability is the ability or quality to respond favorably to new conditions. Adaptable human beings are able to adjust in both a practical and emotional way to changing circumstances, the implication always being positive.

Adaptability is a top requirement for project managers so that they can respond effectively to inevitable issues that arise during the lifecycle of a project. And so they can consistently deliver success aka profitable projects that provide substantial value to the customer.

Adaptive performance in project management

But here’s the thing, can you actually measure adaptability? 

If you’re hiring someone, and you want to make sure they have this trait, what qualifiers are you going to be looking for? 

After all, we’re talking about a soft skill, which by nature is difficult to quantify or recognize unless it’s experienced.

The answer lies in what’s called adaptive performance, aka what makes a person adaptable, professionally speaking:

Adaptive performance manifests as creativity, problem-solving, grit, innovation, and citizenship.”

Because projects by nature are more temporary and the field of project management is still evolving, adaptability is more in demand for project managers than perhaps any other profession. 

In other words, it’s important for project managers to be agile and open to new solutions. If not, project success is at stake.

The 8 Dimensions of Workplace Adaptability for Project Managers

In 2001, a group of researchers (Pulakos et al) came up with a way to accurately measure adaptability at the workplace by coming up with eight definable dimensions. That is, they divvy up the ability to adapt at the workplace into distinct categories.

Pulakos et al further tested their methodology in another study the following year to back up its legitimacy with success.

Expanding on the topic, another set of researchers 20 years later found out just how much each of these adaptability dimensions is weighted when it comes to project managers, specifically

They found that the eight categories invented by Pulakos et al did well encapsulating the adaptability the role requires, with two notable exceptions: 

One, they consolidated the categories of managing crises and managing work stress into one. Two, they added a dimension to leadership performance. 

Our discussion on how adaptive performance can be measured in the project management world is based on the above findings.

Want to find out how you can evaluate adaptability in a project manager? The following 8 dimensions can be used:

1. Learning new tasks, technologies, and procedures

In any profession, the ability and willingness to learn how to do new things is one of the more glaring marks of an adaptable person. 

Project management in particular often requires going down untrodden paths, requiring managers to learn to do new things, sometimes very quickly.

Furthermore, in order to stay on top of multiple projects, project managers will need to leverage new technological solutions to make their processes more efficient. They also need to be able to alter or create new processes when necessary. 

This involves a balance of intuition and exploration. That is, knowing when to stick with what you have but also when to be on the lookout for something new or different that offers more value. Be it a new skill, process, or technology.

A good example of this today is the use of AI and self-driving features to manage projects. Instead of being afraid that AI is coming for their jobs, savvy project managers are making AI work for them by automating menial tasks. 

Self-driving software can help shave massive time off admin and provide better analytics and reporting with all that juicy data they learn from. Onboarding these tech tools and leveraging them correctly shows that project managers possess this #1 adaptability factor.

2. Dealing with uncertainty and unpredictability

How effectively does a project manager pivot by way of planning, prioritizing, etc to deal with shifting circumstances? The higher the success dealing with uncertainty and unpredictability, the more adaptable the PM. 

While smart project managers deal with uncertainty in a practical way with a risk management plan, even smarter ones let their emotional intelligence kick in. 

It’s a wise shift to make, since uncertainty and unpredictability, specifically, have been found to induce anxiety responses in the human brain

Turns out, that human beings are hard-wired to prefer predictability. 

So, when plans go awry as they inevitably do, leaders who are able to maintain emotional control in these situations are actively demonstrating a high level of adaptability.

This facet of adaptability is actually something you can statistically validate, too (which is what this study did).

For example, project managers and owners can measure this adaptability trait simply by turning to data from project management software

You could identify projects where certain strategies were used or the situation changed and spit out corresponding reports. 

You could also see in detail how profitable each project was, the average billable utilization rate, and other metrics. All of these can be used to evaluate how effectively the manager is adapting by showing the financial impact.

1. Physically oriented adaptability

Physically oriented adaptability means that the person is able to adjust well to changes in the physical environment, like temperature, elevation, humidity, etc. 

This won’t apply to project managers working predominantly in a remote capacity, but it can be relevant for projects related to design and construction, structural engineering, or multi-national megaprojects that entail traveling.

For a great example of physically oriented adaptability in action, look no further than a beautiful home perched on a cliff like this one. This house's backstory includes several instances of tangible adaptation. 

From pivoting due to changing zoning regulations to getting creative on the engineering side, physical adaptation in design and construction is necessary to create the marvelous spaces clients demand.

2. Creative problem solving

Being highly adaptable as a project manager means having to get creative to solve problems along the way. 

Problem solving is an important soft skill for IT teams in particular, and what it really means is that someone is able to find answers to complex questions:

“With problem solving, people break down the issue, evaluate potential solutions and then implement the best strategy.”

There’s also a big emphasis here on collaboration, that adaptable PMs and their teams are able to better solve problems because they work on a solution together. 

By leveraging different tools and levels of expertise across a group, challenges can become more like opportunities when everyone’s willing to adapt.

3. Managing crises & handling work stress

The question is, can the project manager keep his or her clarity when making decisions during an emergency or crisis? Can they maintain emotional control while staying focused on the current situation?

Managing crises and handling work stress are separate categories in the first adaptive performance study we examined. 

The follow-up research specifically on project managers recommends that the two, however, are lumped into the same category.

An adaptable project manager will be able to shift their goals, plans, and priorities in the event of an emergency or crisis. This is essentially an exercise in risk management, a process that demands adaptability. 

And vice versa, as adaptability demands risk management. The more you can get creative and visualize dealing with risks, the more emotional control you can maintain when the risks actually come to fruition. 

As Benjamin Franklin famously said, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” 

So while adaptability definitely requires the aforementioned ability to change plans, it also has an important symbiotic relationship with risk management.

For project managers to be highly adaptable, they have to plan for risks and at the same time be able to change plans. This next part is about maintaining resilience and professionalism as that’s happening.

To do so, PMs need to be able to cope with work stress, to deal with it healthily so that it doesn’t negatively impact the work. 

The key to increasing adaptability when it comes to stress is to keep things constructive. Stress does not have to be a negative thing. From an evolutionary standpoint, stress is what helps us survive. It can push us out of our comfort zone and lead to innovative solutions when properly channeled. 

6. Interpersonal adaptability

Here’s another one of those soft skills that project managers need when they’re dealing with a lot of people on complex projects. 

Interpersonal adaptability is related to emotional intelligence, specifically empathy

An empathetic lens that helps inform what the other is feeling aids in the feedback process. A leader with interpersonal adaptability can take into account the opinions of others and shift their own accordingly, when applicable. 

In addition to empathy, interpersonal adaptability requires an open mind and flexibility. This attribute is especially critical for project managers who manage cross-functional teams. 

For example, if dealing with both engineers and creatives and mediating between the two, the project manager has to engage some level of emotional intelligence.

The same is true when communicating with stakeholders who may be drastically different in the way they approach the project. 

Some stakeholders don’t care about status updates, but others want to feel more like they’re part of the team. Emotionally intelligent PMs know they need to be treated differently to keep things copacetic. 

In sum, you can observe emotional, interpersonal adaptability in PMs who are able to successfully navigate relationships with their teams and stakeholders. 

At the end of the day, people love to work with managers like these because they make everyone feel valued.

7. Cultural adaptability

“Demonstrating cultural adaptability measures if the employee takes action to learn about and understand the needs, and values of other groups, organizations, or cultures. Has the employee had the opportunity to integrate with different values, customs, and cultures to maintain positive relationships with other groups, organizations, or cultures?”

Cultural adaptability has become increasingly important over the past few years. Since 2020, more and more teams have been working remotely, sometimes across the world. 

These teams oftentimes interface almost every day via video meetings and team calls. At any given time, you can have multiple cultural backgrounds present on the same call.

This is especially common in the realms of web design and e-commerce. For instance, I’ve worked on a few teams like this; there was one where the American CEO was in California, the French COO was in Nepal, and our tech support was in the Philippines (born and raised).

Savvy project managers should be able to use their empathy to have some level of understanding of the cultural contexts of the key team members. 

The best ones do more by deeply valuing cultural differences, seeing them as a plus to the team and the organization as a whole. 

8. Leadership performance

The last metric of adaptive performance, recommended specifically for project managers, has to do with leadership abilities. Leadership performance can be measured in a variety of ways.

Traditionally, metrics would include financial data like revenue increases and profit margins.

Customer satisfaction is another area that can contribute to a project manager’s leadership performance. This is weighted more heavily in businesses with a value-based pricing model.

However, as skilled, talented people are becoming harder and harder to court and keep, team satisfaction is also a big indicator of leadership performance. Intermittent team reviews on the project leaders are a great source of feedback to figure out where their leadership acumen currently stands.

Why adaptability is such an important attribute in project management (and in life)

Circumstances will change. People will disappointed. This is true in every profession and across practically every sphere of human life. 

It is not what changes but how someone reacts to the changes that define them. This is the essence of adaptability.

Effective project managers need to anticipate change and adapt to it in a way that’s at the end of the day, profitable for business and valuable for the customer.

The more adaptability is nurtured, the more apt any manager becomes, or any person therefore, to be able to respond to change with fortitude and practicality. 

It’s no wonder many consider it the #1 common denominator among successful people.