In biology, adaptation is the degree to which an organism successfully responds to changes in its environment and the subsequent evolutionary benefit this confers.


The International Compliance Association (ICA) is a professional membership and awarding body. ICA is the leading global provider of professional, certificated qualifications in anti-money laundering; governance, risk, and compliance; and financial crime prevention. ICA members are recognized globally for their commitment to best compliance practice and an enhanced professional reputation. To find out more, visit the ICA website.

It’s easy to see how this advantageous trait can extend beyond natural science. In the workplace, for instance, adaptability helps foster better relationships with colleagues and clients; allows one to accept and implement change more quickly; and demonstrates flexibility, maturity, and intelligence.

It is important for compliance professionals, and if cultivated with diligence and care, can help better protect our firms from future risks.

Our world is fast-changing; to ensure we thrive within it, we must be able to respond effectively, utilizing adaptability for its many benefits both individually and for the firms in which we work.

The question, then, is how we do so.

Adaptability skills

Ability to learn: Adaptable individuals are quick learners. They are good at putting that learning into practice, proficient in identifying trends and patterns, and often better able to recollect past discoveries to make decisions quickly.

Those that practice adaptability are always looking for ways to improve and so are also willing learners. Whether it is a positive or negative change, they are not discouraged by failure, which they see as part of the learning process.

Persistence: Adaptable people don’t merely accept failure and will constantly seek ways of achieving their objectives no matter the obstacles. Always striving for better methods to work or solve problems, they see challenges as exciting and try to stay positive and focused.

Resourcefulness: The adaptable often distinguish themselves through their resourcefulness, being able to formulate more efficient techniques to overcome adversity. When confronted with insufficient funding or depleted staffing levels, adaptable staff will diverge from the “traditional” way of conducting business to achieve their goals in a more frugal manner.

Curiosity: Those that are adaptable are by their nature curious. They love searching for new ways of working and are fascinated by novel ideas, activities, and outcomes. Curious individuals are keen to investigate and not afraid of new ideas, suggestions, or of receiving constructive criticism.

Why is adaptability so important to compliance?

Issues that affect compliance appear rapidly and are usually difficult. Failure to address these issues in a quick and effective manner might, for firms, lead to large fines, reputational damage, or worse.

Interestingly, the ability to adapt has been central to mitigating some of the biggest compliance challenges of the last decade.

Covid-19: Compliance teams faced the logistical headache of helping firms adapt to sudden, mass remote working. Though other industries were required to do the same, compliance is a high-risk sector, where missing a vital piece of information, a simple transaction, or delaying a review can result in potentially severe consequences.

Criminal activity—in particular, online fraud and scams—intensified during the pandemic. With more people working from home, fraudsters quickly altered their methods to target victims, leading to a surge in serious crime. Adapting to this helped stop fraud figures from being even higher.

Cryptocurrencies: The growth of cryptocurrencies has changed the way many view traditional currencies, including criminals. Criminal activity historically conducted through traditional financial institutions is now often undertaken via crypto, and it is the job of compliance practitioners to adapt to these changes while identifying transactions of concern, trends, and solutions.

Sanctions: Sanctions have been at the forefront of news and media outlets throughout 2022. Compliance professionals have had to adapt almost immediately to sanctions developments—not only regulatory updates but also the emergence of newly sanctioned individuals and entities.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an obvious example. Practically overnight, compliance professionals had to react to the sanctioning of scores of Russian individuals and entities by different bodies and jurisdictions.

Regulation technology: Regtech has disrupted the regulatory environment profoundly, changing the ways firms conduct their regulatory compliance operations. With many compliance-related tasks now being automated, practitioners have had to adapt and obtain new skills, working alongside supplementary technology to meet business goals.

Though there has been much talk of whether artificial intelligence will replace traditional compliance professionals, it will be interesting to see what the future holds in this space and to what extent compliance professionals will have to further adapt.

Regulatory change: Processes and procedures have been adapted to comply with new regulations, with compliance professionals also having to ensure their firms aren’t at risk during the transition period.

How to cultivate adaptability

Like any soft skill, adaptability can be improved. Exactly how depends on the individual and their specific strengths and areas of development. Here are some common tips that are universally applicable.

Work on problem-solving skills: Adaptability and problem solving go hand in hand. Problem solving helps you resolve issues as they arise and can be broken down into four steps:

  1. Identify the problem.
  2. Establish multiple solutions for resolving the issue.
  3. Define the best solution.
  4. Implement the solution to resolve the issue

By clearly identifying an issue, one can strategically arrive at a solution. The more experience you have problem solving, the easier it becomes to solve the next one. Over time, and with enough practice, issues will become easier to confront.

Learn to embrace change: Routine is useful, but it can easily become a self-built prison. With the world constantly evolving, it is imperative to accept change to keep up. By doing so, new ways of working emerge, and being open to and embracing change can help you become a more productive and creative professional.

Have an open mind: Being adaptable is about being able to look at things differently and not closing one’s mind to new opportunities. To be more open minded, ask high-level questions and establish the “why?” of any given situation. Practice active listening when learning something new and try to think about situations from all possible angles before looking to solve the problem.

Don’t be overconfident: Confidence in one’s ability is no bad thing, but it is not always the most useful trait when looking at it from an adaptability perspective. Being able to “step outside of yourself” opens new perspectives and ways of doing things, making you more agile and responsive to developments.

Leave your comfort zone: Comfort zones are attractive precisely because they are so comfortable. Yet, working only in ways with which you are familiar exposes you and your firm to the risk of being unprepared for inevitable change. Slowly exposing yourself to new and challenging situations can help you to think in different ways and increase flexibility, both of which bolster one’s ability to adapt.

Cultivating adaptability is an organic activity that will take time, patience, and focus. The payoff? A better protected firm, healthier approach to change, enhanced career prospects, and a skill that can be drawn upon in one’s personal life.

The International Compliance Association is a sister company to Compliance Week. Both organizations are under the umbrella of Wilmington plc.