I had an epiphany of sorts recently when a friend reminded me that it's not the strongest or the wisest who survive, but the ones who are the most adaptable. It struck me that adaptability — defined as “the ability to change (or be changed) to fit changed circumstances,” is, hands-down, our most important survival skill in these turbulent times.

To understand the deeper meaning of adaptability, think of it as a parallel to the theory of evolution. Darwin posited that unforeseen changes in the environment (substitute “economy”) could affect all the creatures who lived in that environment — forcing them to either change their behavior (adapt), or become extinct. This is a simplified explanation of the theory of natural selection and survival of the fittest — and it explains why adaptability is the only option for organizations and individuals alike to emerge intact in our new economic reality.

Adaptability means more than a willingness to accept change. Most of us do pretty well at modifying our goals in response to changing circumstances. The hard part happens when we have to modify our behavior to meet these goals.

On an institutional level, consider the example of Financial & Insurance Conference Planners, an organization that for many decades thrived primarily by providing a superb networking environment for a relatively small group of specialized planners and suppliers. The networking continues. But, starting about six years ago, FICP (then ICPA) began to adapt to changing times — with new association management, a new name, a new focus on member education, and a slew of other initiatives all defined by a comprehensive strategic plan. Then, in 2008, financial services meetings were altered by unpredictable changes that created the unprecedented “AIG effect.” FICP responded by reexamining priorities and modifying the action items on its strategic plan to fit the new economic realities. For instance, big changes have been made for FICP's 2009 Annual Conference in Toronto this November. Traditionally a four-night event, it has been trimmed to three nights. Registration fees were reduced. Yet there will be no loss of education — given predominantly by first-time presenters — at more than 35 breakout sessions organized in six tracks. (Go to www.ficpnet.com for more information, including templates you can use to show the conference's ROI to senior management.)

On an individual level, consider the planner entrepreneurs featured in Alison Hall's story on page F10. Each of them has stepped out of his or her comfort zone to start a new career — and each continues to adapt to changing times. There's no doubt in my mind that they are survivors.