Are you facing an adaptive challenge?

We live in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times.

Person space walkingFor leaders, this presents many challenges, often complex, though they can be exciting.

In dealing with those challenges, we need to find new ways of working, within our teams, across our organisations, and with a growing range of stakeholders, including our customers.

Building leadership capability in such times requires an understanding of the type of challenges you face. Are they practical leadership challenges that have a technical solution? Will a change in routine, process, or preference solve your problem? Will current expertise or good management address them?

Or are they adaptive challenges, which call for the transformation of deeply held beliefs, assumptions and behaviours? In situations where values and beliefs come into play, technical solutions typically exacerbate the problem, making the challenge greater. Typically, adaptive challenges involve a disparity between values and circumstances and, as Robert Heifetz, author of the widely-acclaimed book Leadership without easy answers, put it, the role of the leader is to close that gap.

Heifetz further suggests that to close the gap requires new learning, innovation, and change in behaviour. At the heart of the challenge, you may also need to ask to what extent you are contributing to it?

Several indicators identify you face an adaptive challenge – any one of those listed below is sufficient for your problem to be adaptive.

  • There is no known solution – your reason and logic won’t get you to a solution.
  • People prefer to avoid the issue – as it’s easier to do work they know how to do.
  • There is a recurring problem – the challenge keeps reappearing after you initiate a fix.
  • It’s uncomfortable work – this is evident from the emotional responses brought out.
  • Failure to resolve competing priorities – leaders avoid the tough trade-offs or compromises.
  • Moving forward feels risky – to your job, your reputation, and to key relationships.
  • There may be casualties – forward momentum may result in some people left behind.
  • People must work across boundaries – because no one person or team can fix the problem alone.
  • Progress is not linear – there is no direct path to a better solution and new learning is required.

If you can identify with any one of these indicators, you are faced with an adaptive challenge.

As noted above, leading and managing that problem in a mechanistic manner will likely be unsuccessful. Heifetz suggests marshalling energy, resources and ingenuity to change the circumstances and thus reduce the gap between those and values.

I am indebted to Robert Heifetz and to Benjamin Taylor and Dennis Vergne of RedQuadrant for greater insight into leading and managing adaptive challenges. From the latter, their practice of systems leadership and my recent training with them has opened up new thinking and practice concerning leadership for the future. It focuses on managing diverse and conflicting interests, beliefs and assumptions and working with them in a systemic, holistic and process oriented approach.

So, how are you dealing with adaptive challenges? How well are you doing? How successful have you been? What more do you think you need to do?

I love meaningful dialogue. I am always happy to listen and ready to help.  Please reach out to me if I might be of value to you.

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