Skip to content

Q logo

On 1 December, Q’s Exploring Adaptive Space – community of practice group organised a zoom session to explore the ‘theory as ideal’ of Adaptive Space and Complexity Leadership Theory. The aim was to offer a thought-provoking and engaging session, where we could help each other deepen our practice in creating Adaptive Space. ‘Adaptive Space’ is defined as the temporary zones of social connectivity that enable the discovery, development and diffusion of new ideas.

It was also a chance to build on the three rewarding zoom calls that Q has previously done with Professor Mary Uhl-Bien, who pioneered this approach following her ten-year study into what enables successful change in healthcare, and other organisations.

Prof. Mary Uhl-Bien

Overview of the session

We started with a conversational overview of the framework from our three co-presenters.

Gareth gave a concise introduction to Adaptive Space and the work of Prof. Mary Uhl-Bien along with examples. These spaces could be anything from a Design Thinking or Liberating Structures-based workshop, to a Lab, hackathon, Community of Practice, pitch-fest or online group – anywhere that brings people out of their silos and daily operational performance demands. This enables ideas to flow, new connections to be made and allies to be found. In addition, prototypes may be challenged and iterated etc: a sort of ‘organisational playground’.

Diane shared the key messages and themes from a virtual conversation with Mary Uhl-Bien and the follow-up blogs. She also highlighted the upcoming NHS Horizons’ spread and adoption report, which uses Mary Uhl-Bien’s work.

What have we learned?

How Adaptive Space enabled the first NHS timebank, Hexitime

Matthew shared the example of how the NHS’s first national skills-sharing timebank, Hexitime, closely followed the path to success uncovered by Prof Uhl-Bien’s research into how successful change happens. It began in a very small, insular, high-trust innovation pocket – but, as is common, couldn’t find support from senior leaders. It was still a crude idea – not yet a timebank.

The adaptive space of a Q community ‘Open Space’ session and a second Q-brokered meeting of members with overlapping interests, enabled the ball to really start rolling. New allies were found, the initial idea was challenged and transformed into a tech-savvy time-bank platform. A core team was created that applied to Q Exchange for funding, and widely popularised Hexitime across the network. It would later become the winner in the first vote to gain Q Exchange funding.

As Mary’s model predicts, Hexitime was able to build a kind of momentum known as ‘network closure’, where an idea that was pushed to iterate and develop in a highly socially connected adaptive space grows a network buzz and becomes unstoppable.

Identifying who is best to be in the adaptive space network is crucial to succeed

Sharing our experiences of Adaptive Spaces

In the first breakout session, we discussed “what have you learned from Adaptive Spaces you’ve set up or been part of?”, with feedback drawn from everyone using a ‘chat-fall’ (rapid concurrent feedback in the chat box).

The session included some of the chat box statements from participants below:

  • ‘Our group talked a lot about the importance of shared purpose; the need to not try and solve new problems with old solutions or structures. We talked about how stuff is messy and difficult in the middle’
  • ‘Identifying who is best to be in the adaptive space network is crucial to succeed’
  • ‘Create a belief and work with the willing’
  • ‘My reflections are on the roles of ambiguity / power / psychological safety especially on supporting people with “feeling comfortable being uncomfortable” also people can struggle with the complete freedom of adaptive spaces given the practices they are accustomed to.’
  • ‘The messy middle can be generative!’

How do we enable Adaptive Space?

“How do we enable Adaptive Space?” was the focus for the second breakout session with feedback identifying factors such as the following in the chats:

  • ‘Recognise and be responsive to zones – comfort, uncomfortable, growth, fear’
  • ‘Feels like there is a real need to create a safe environment for any of these discussions – not always easy to do in practice’
  • ‘Next step – in the LS community we are interested in creating “surgeries/clinics” so practitioners can come to the group and work through their challenges with these adaptive spaces’
  • ‘Seeing this link to patient/service user outcomes and conversations’
  • ‘There are some good “case studies” here if you aren’t familiar with Human Learning Systems

Reflections / summary

This was the first community conversation hosted by the group and it felt like a positive start with lots of good conversation taking place in the break-out rooms and ideas being offered and exchanged in the chat.

The timeframe for the session was tight at an hour and it felt like we had so many generative topics being raised that we could have continued on for longer to get a little deeper into some of them. Getting the flow and the structure right was also something we reflected on as facilitators after the session had finished; perhaps these would be things to consider for a future session.

What’s next?

The session seemed well received based on feedback in the chat space as was the idea for another session this year. We’ve also agreed as facilitators to write up the session – as you’re reading here – and make the chats available for participants after the session.

Previous Q community Prof Mary Uhl-Bien webinars:

Extended reading

Join the Q community ’Exploring Adaptive Space’ to share challenges, advise, and hear about future events.


  1. Diane, I enjoyed reading your blog. To what extent do you think our Special Interest Group pages are an Adaptive Spaces and if they are not what can we do to make them - that is if we want to?

Leave a comment

If you have a Q account please log in before posting your comment.

Read our comments policy before posting your comment.

This will not be publicly visible