There are many approaches to leading change to solve a problem.
Most include common practices, such as creating a sense of urgency, communicating the vision, celebrating early wins, etc.
However, these methods fall down with a certain kind of problem called “adaptive challenges”. One indicator of adaptive challenges is that they persist after attempts to solve them.
The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, by Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow, goes through how to distinguish adaptive challenges from conventional “technical problems”, and how to successfully lead adaptive change.
Technical problems are problems an organization has already developed the know-how to solve.
For technical problems, one or more experts in an organization can identify and solve the problem on their own, with others adjusting in minor, known and predictable ways.
Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, require a response that is outside the organization’s current knowhow.
There is no one expert in the organization who can solve an adaptive challenge. It requires people to do their part. You can’t take the problem off the people because the people are part of the problem. Their ownership and responsibility-taking for the problem becomes part of the solution. Adaptive challenges require people in the organization to change and often require multiple perspectives to identify and solve them.
Most problems are bundled. There are some problems that are purely technical. But most problems include both a technical problem component and an adaptive challenge component.
Indicators of adaptive challenges include recurring crisis and persistent conflict. This happens when an adaptive challenge hasn’t been addressed fully in the past, because a technical fix was insufficient, and so the challenge resurfaces again and becomes a crisis or persistent conflict.
Changes in leaders’, managers’ or employees’ actions and behaviors are great examples, as well as changes in culture and relationships.
The authors argue the biggest mistake leaders make is dealing with adaptive challenges as though they are technical problems. That’s one big reason change efforts fail.
This happens because leaders often assume any problem is a technical problem. So the leader throws technical fixes at an adaptive challenge. And so the problem persists. People get disappointed because the problem doesn’t go away. Employees feel the leaders should give them a solution, as do the leaders.
This creates a dependency loop where leaders over-promise what they can deliver and employees are continually disappointed.
Leaders need to instead ask employees to realize that there are alot of problems for which there are no quick solutions, where their own responsibility-taking will be needed, where they’ll have to put in effort to figure out solutions together, and where they themselves will need to develop knowhow to act or behave in new ways.
The leader’s job isn’t to provide the answers but instead to frame the questions for which the answers are discovered over time by the collective intelligence of the people.
This book, building on the authors’ two previous ones, acts as a practical guide.
This one is a must-read for leaders looking to make lasting change on the persistent problems that have eluded them.
Book: 304 pages. GetAbstract book summary: 5 pages, 10 minute audio.
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