Adaptive capacity is widely held as a key property of resilient and transformative social-ecological systems. However, current knowledge of the term does not yet address key questions of how to operationalize this system condition to address sustainability challenges through research and policy. This paper explores temporal and agency dimensions of adaptive capacity in practice to better understand how system conditions and attributes enable adaptation. An institutional dynamics lens is employed to systemically examine empirical cases of change in urban water management. Comparative analysis of two Australian cities drought response is conducted using institutional analysis and qualitative system dynamics mapping techniques. The study finds that three forms of adaptive capacity appear critical: the ability to learn, decide, and act. The analytical approach developed provides insight into change dynamics and the agency mechanisms that generate them. The paper proposes a typology of adaptive capacity by characterizing these change dynamics and mechanisms for locked-in, crisis, reorganizing, and stabilizing systems. This set of propositions on institutional conditions and forms of adaptive capacity is offered to further advance research on the topic and help to operationalize adaptive capacity in practice.