“When people look to authorities for easy answers to adaptive challenges, they end up with dysfunction. They expect the person in charge to know what to do, and under the weight of that responsibility, those in authority frequently end up faking it or disappointing people, or they get spit out of the system in the belief that a new “leader” will solve the problem.”
“In fact, there’s a proportionate relationship between risk and adaptive change: The deeper the change and the greater the amount of new learning required, the more resistance there will be and, thus, the greater the danger to those who lead. For this reason, people often try to avoid the dangers, either consciously or subconsciously, by treating an adaptive challenge as if it were a technical one. This is why we see so much more routine management than leadership in our society.” -Heifetz and Linsky Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading
Which is one of the greatest challenges that stands before our educational organizations and leaders at this very moment in time…
The understanding that we have made a radical shift from technical problems to the amount of adaptive challenges and dilemmas that we now and will face.
For this reason, it will be in our ability to create greater organizational and individual capacity that we will be better equipped to face and come to terms with these rising adaptive challenges and dilemmas that are coming at us.
However, before moving any farther forward, let’s take a moment for Heifetz and Linsky to create a deeper understanding around what separates, or serves as the main difference between what is seen as a technical problem from which we view an adaptive challenge and/or dilemma.
“What makes a problem technical is not that it is trivial; but simply that its solution already lies within the organization’s repertoire. In contrast, adaptive pressures force the organization to change, lest it decline.”
To add, what separates a “technical problem” from an “adaptive challenge” is that there are no absolute answers to adaptive challenges and/or dilemmas. Whereas, while a technical issue may be difficult, we answers to those problems. Answers exist, be that from internally or externally of our organization.
Whereas, with adaptive challenges, there are often no set answers to solving the dilemma. Very often, they require deeper questions and the willingness of individuals and the organization to grapple their way forward. Or as Heifetz and Linsky add in Leadership on the Line, “We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community. Without learning new ways-changing attitudes, values, and behaviors-people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment. The sustainability of change depends on having the people with the problem internalize the change itself.”
Facing our adaptive challenges and dilemmas require our ability to constantly create and build up our adaptive capacity. Which means that new and ongoing learning, as well as engaging greater agility and adaptability, has to be built up across and at all levels of the organization. Which means…
“Just tell me what to do” can no longer be an unwritten motto that sweeps across the entirety of our organizations.
Instead, learning has to become the new constant, with a focus on deeper questions, not easy answers.
We have to learn to become more agile and adaptable, both as individuals and organizations. And we have to be able to stand longer under the weight of big questions. In other words, we have to learn how to grapple…
We have to learn to be able to grapple in the face of uncertainty, in the face of accelerated change, in the face of unknowns, in the face of the adaptive challenges and dilemmas we now face, as well as those in the future.
Unfortunately, as Heifetz and Linsky share in Leadership on the Line, “In the face of adaptive pressures, people don’t want questions; they want answers. They don’t want to be told that they will have to sustain losses; rather, they want to know how you’re going to protect the from the pains of change.”
Which means that leading adaptive work, leading people through adaptive challenges and dilemmas, and creating adaptive capacity, will be both the greatest and most difficult work that any leader and organization will ever embark upon.
Creating adaptive capacity to face the challenges and dilemmas of today’s modern world is difficult work, to say the least. It means going against the norm of most leadership.
We hire leaders to provide a sense of stability, a sense of safety. Whereas, the work of building up the adaptive capacity of an organization requires provoking that safety, of pulling people out of the comfortable, of unentrenching them from the status quo ways of doing and being that they come to know; which can mean difficult days ahead, and very often spell disaster for any leader.
But that is what is required, if adaptive capacity is to become both the individual and organizational objective.
This is deep work. It forces individuals and organizations to move past a veneer way of working. It requires depth of trust, depth of relationships, and a depth of understanding around their values and vision. It takes a willingness to be vulnerable. It takes a willingness to face loss. It takes a willingness to become and stay a learner. And it takes a willingness and want to get better…each and every day.
It is in that space, in that willingness to grapple both as individuals and organizations, that adaptive capacity is created and sustained.
I will leave you with these words from Heifetz and Linsky from Leadership on the Line and a question…
“Generally, people will not authorize someone to make them face what they do not want to face. Instead, people hire someone to provide protection and ensure stability, someone with solutions that require a minimum of disruption. But adaptive work creates risk, conflict, and instability because addressing the issues underlying adaptive problems may involve upending deep and entrenched norms. Thus, leadership requires disturbing people-but at a rate they can absorb.”
What are you willing to disturb?