At The Intersection Of Adaptive Leadership, Design And Systems Thinking

“We can’t impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.”  -via Donella Meadows Thinking in Systems: A Primer

We live in a world relentlessly pushed forward by the velocity, volatility, uncertainty, disruption, and disequilibrium of constant change. As the pace of change accelerates, so does the shelf-life of our strategies, processes, frameworks, and systems. The rapidity of change now requires an expanding and continuously evolving breadth and depth to our repertoire of problem-solving strategies and leadership skill-sets. Yet, even in the face of this rapidity of change and the disequilibrium it creates, too often, we find ourselves as individuals and organizations siloed in and dedicated to only one way of doing and working. In many ways, we continue to approach the problems we are trying to solve in very limited and one-dimensional manner.

If it worked before, we believe it will continue to work…even when it doesn’t.

In many ways, we fail to adapt, both as individuals and organizations, especially in the midst of this shift from technical problems to adaptive challenges. As Heifetz and Linsky share in Leadership on the Line, “Indeed, the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify – in politics, community life, business, or the nonprofit sector – is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.”

In the article, Becoming an Adaptive Leader, they share seven ways to know if you are facing an adaptive challenge:

  • The solution requires operating in a different way than you do now
  • The problem AND the solution require learning
  • The solution requires shifting authority and responsibility to the people who are actually affected
  • The solution requires some sacrifice of your past ways of working or living
  • The solution requires experimenting before you’re sure of the answer
  • The solution will take a long time
  • The challenge connects to people’s deeply held values

While it is vitally important to determine and distinguish between whether you are facing a technical problem or adaptive challenge, it is no longer enough without expanding, evolving and innovating the ways in which we will respond and react to these new and growing challenges.

It is at this intersection of recognition, that learning and improvement can exist.

It is at this intersection, where adaptive leadership, design and systems thinking meet, mingle and begin to coexist, that will eventually allow us to adapt and intervene towards more improved problem-solving processes to today’s growing list of “adaptive” challenges. To allow us to approach these challenges in a much more expansive and effective manner, both individually and organizationally.

Especially as we consider the phases or steps of each of these individual processes and frameworks.

Adaptive Leadership: observation, interpretation, intervention.

Design Thinking: empathy, definition, ideation, prototyping

Systems Thinking: interconnections, linkages, interactions

Visually seeing these three processes and frameworks together side by side, not only shows how similar each of these are, but how they can support and build upon each other, as well as fill in the gaps that one or the other may be missing. In many ways, they are best served not as building blocks for each other, but as blending blocks that provide a more integrated approach.

For example, as design thinking may push to disrupt the status quo of doing and working, systems thinking fills in by allowing us to determine how that shift can and will affect the whole, while adaptive leadership presses forward to prepare us for how people will interpret and be affected by that change and prepare interventions for the push-back that will eventually come from the uncertainty and possible loss of that change.

It is also when you look at Peter Senge’s ideas on systems thinking and learning organizations…

  • Deep, persistent commitment to real learning
  • Be prepared to be wrong, reflecting on mental models
  • Gain a diversity of thinking and points of view, collective
  • Understanding the problems we are dealing with and gain some perspective on those problems

That we see not only the intersection, but how the coalescing and fusing of these three processes and frameworks for problem-solving and adaptive change support an environment that is constantly evolving and continuously improving.

It is at the intersection of adaptive leadership, design and systems thinking, we are able to engage empathy, allow for our observations to lead to deeper connections and interconnections. To not only interpret those observations and connections, but allow them to better define the real problem or problems we are facing and to see how they link to the entire system. While providing the space for ideation and divergent thinking that will provide more relevant solutions and prototypes to those problems, while trying to understand how people will interact with these changes and consider  possible interventions that will allow for us to overcome ingrained status quo habits and behaviors that impede progress and change.

It is at the intersection of these three forces that not only better futures are imagined, but the tools are provided to help bring those possibilities to realization.

“The main tenet of design thinking is empathy for the people you’re trying to design for. Leadership is exactly the same thing-building empathy for the people that you’re entrusted to help.”  -David Kelley Found of IDEO

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