Bring up the terms “technical change” and “adaptive change” and many leaders will nod in recognition. Most can recognize when they are in technical or adaptive territory. More often than not, however, leaders fail to match their leadership approach to the type of change that is needed.
As defined by Ron Haifitz in “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World,” technical change is the type that can be solved within the current expertise and capability of the organization. Adaptive change calls for solutions that are not within the current capability of the organization (or leaders). As Haifitz describes it an adaptive situation is “a gap between aspirations and operational capacity that cannot be closed by the expertise and procedures currently in place.”
My recent work with both for-profit and non-profit leaders show them reacting to the perceived urgency of an adaptive challenge by rushing to formulate an answer to the challenge by themselves and then seeking to enroll others in their solution. This misses two very important aspects of responding to adaptive situations: the opportunity for an innovative solution based on the collective wisdom of the organization, and fostering broad engagement in the selected approach among those who will execute it. It also ends up isolating the leader and making him or her the focus of conflict and resistance. For such leaders the resistance can start to feel personal.
Leading in adaptive situations challenges leaders to invite others into decision-making at the very time they may be least willing to trust the outcome to others. “I’m surrounded by people who only know how to do what I tell them to do,” complains one executive. Yet, failure to open solution development to others may mean falling short of the demands of the adaptive challenge itself. Following are a few suggestions for leaders facing an adaptive situation:
Qualify the Urgency – The need for a solution may indeed be urgent, but realize that the conditions that create the adaptive situation have been forming over a long period of time. Resist the urge to panic. Create the space for others to be creative. Consider breaking the adaptive challenge down into smaller parts, and take them on one at a time.
Lead by Framing the Challenge – Leaders play an extremely powerful role in providing the insight to accurately name or frame the adaptive challenge. Focus on diagnosing and articulating the challenge rather than jumping to solutions.
Explore Multiple Solutions – Panic and lack of trust in the wisdom of the collective can cause leaders to lock down on one solution before exploring other alternatives. Set a goal to explore at least two if not three alternatives.
Don’t Go Alone — Don’t try to facilitate the engagement process by yourself. The temptation to try to control the outcome may be too great, or – because of your own power in the organization — participants may feel they need to give you the answer you want instead of fully exploring all options. Use internal or external facilitators to design group processes to define and explore alternatives.