Useful Concepts – #5 – Adaptive vs. Technical Challenges

I hope my last post didn’t give the impression that I don’t like the genre of leadership literature. I love it and am too easily seduced by its promise that it’s the qualities and skills of individuals that can effect great change rather than, say, luck and events.

One of my favourites of the genre is Ronald A. Heifetz and Martin Linsky’s Leadership on the Line, despite or because of its only slightly paranoid sub-title Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading.

The most useful concept from that book is the distinction between adaptive and technical challenges.

Technical challenges are those for which there are standard operating procedures, a set of available know-how, or authorities and experts at hand.

Adaptive challenges are the other ones. As Heifetz and Linsky say:

But there is a whole host of problems that are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. 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.

If in doubt, you can tell if something is an adaptive challenge from the following characteristics:

  1. People’s hearts and minds need to change, not just preferences and routine behaviours
  2. You’ve tried all the technical fixes that you can think of and you still haven’t solved the problem
  3. The persistence of conflict among the participants in a problem situation may point to long-standing unaddressed adaptive problems
  4. The existence of a crisis, where time is short and the stakes high is indicative of an adaptive issue. Addressing it can be an opportunity.

The problem is that adaptive challenges are really difficult to address. To deal with adaptive challenges means accepting that no one has the answers to the multitude of questions yet. It means sustaining the discomfort of having ones culture, values and habitual ways of doing things questioned. It means all of this without necessary seeing a guarantee of benefit, merely potential for loss. And so everyone would rather pretend that adaptive challenges are technical challenges. Those in positions of authority would rather be seen as the experts with the technical fixes in hand. They would like to satisfy the need for certainty and for a painless quick improvement of everyone’s lot. Heifetz and Linsky warn against this:

“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 times of distress, when everyone looks to authorities to provide direction, protection, and order, this is an easy diagnostic mistake to make. (…)

In mobilizing adaptive work, you have to engage people in adjusting their unrealistic expectations, rather than try to satisfy them as if the situation were amenable primarily to a technical remedy. You have to counteract their exaggerated dependency and promote their resourcefulness. This takes an extraordinary level of presence, time, and artful communication, but it may also take more time and trust than you have.”

So, how do we go about dealing with adaptive challenge. It’s a key leadership task to be aware of your own limitations and to restrain yourself from wanting to solve the problem on your own, according to Heifetz and Linsky:

“Authority figures typically try to meet these challenges just as if they were technical problems because that is what people expect of them, and that’s also what they’ve come to expect of themselves. Usually, they think that’s what it means to be the “go to” person. But authorities cannot solve an adaptive challenge by issuing a directive or bringing together a group of experts, because the solutions to adaptive problems lie in the new attitudes, competencies, and coordination of the people with the problem itself. Because the problem lies in people, the solution lies in them, too. So the work of addressing an adaptive challenge must be done by the people connected to the problem. And those in authority must mobilize people to do this hard work rather than try to solve the problem for them.”

I find the distinction incredibly useful. Most big problems, of course, have technical and adaptive aspects to them. One requirement then is for the experts on the technical aspects not to over-reach and pretend that they have the solution to the whole challenge. Another is to ensure that the adaptive challenges are addressed through the necessary engagement and mobilisation of all the participants in the challenge. The expertise in addressing adaptive challenges is leadership.

(As a marginal note, those who have been following the public debate around Brexit closely will have seen a high level of anti-expert rhetoric which is partly motivated by the desire to maintain wilful ignorance but may partly also be a reaction against the over-reach of experts pretending that they know – or could work out on their own – what it means to leave the EU or how it should be done. Given that it is a massive adaptive challenge, it is also clear that in the Brexit context we should distrust anyone who tries to make us, and by that I mean citizens, feel certain, comfortable or confident, and should look to those who challenge us to live with uncertainty and open questions and those who want to engage the resources of all citizens collectively in being part of a solution. As a final note, it’s likely that the “European Project” needs to be (or should have been?) managed more as an adaptive challenge, that is to say, not as a technical exercise to be driven forward by technocratic experts in expert committees, but as a process of changing hearts and minds, deep-seated values and cultures of millions of people.)

(As a second marginal note, it may be interesting to think through what it would mean not just to practice self-management but self-leadership through adaptive challenges. This would mean addressing where we need to change our own hearts and minds, and think through conflicts in our own values. It may also mean mobilising and engaging our own internal stakeholders, being mindful of the idea mentioned in a previous post that we may have several internal projects and commitments that may at times conflict or pull us in different directions.)

I'd love to know what you think about this!