Adapted and edited from The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky
The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems. What’s the difference? While technical problems may be very complex and critically important (like replacing a faulty heart valve during cardiac surgery), they have known solutions that can be implemented by current knowhow. They can be resolved through the application of authoritative expertise and through the organization’s current structures, procedures, and ways of doing things. Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses, and generating the new capacity to thrive anew.
Problems do not always come neatly packaged as either “technical” or “adaptive.” When you take on a new challenge at work, it does not arrive with a big T or A stamped on it. Most problems come mixed, with the technical and adaptive elements intertwined.
Here’s a homey example. As of this writing, Marty’s mother, Ruth, is in good health at age ninety-five. Not a gray hair on her head (although she has dyed a highlight in her hair so that people will know that the Wack is natural). She lives alone and still drives, even at night. When Marty goes from his home in New York City up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to do his teaching at the Kennedy School at Harvard, Ruth often drives from her apartment in nearby Chestnut Hill to have dinner with him.
Some time ago, Marty began noticing new scrapes on her car each time she arrived for their dinner date. Now one way to look at the issue is: the car should be taken to the body shop for repair. In that sense, this situation has a technical component: the scrapes can be solved by the application of the authoritative expertise found at the body shop. But an adaptive challenge is also lurking below the surface. Ruth is the only one of her contemporaries who still drives at all, never mind at night. Doing so is a source of enormous pride (and convenience) for her, as is living alone, not being in a retirement community, and still functioning more or less as an independent person. To stop driving, even just to stop driving at night, would require a momentous adjustment from her, an adaptation. The technical part is that she would have to pay for cabs, ask friends to drive her places, and so forth. The adaptive part can been found in the loss this change would represent, a loss of an important part of the story she tells herself about who she is as a human being, namely, that she is the only ninety-five-year-old person she knows who still drives at night. It would rip out a part of her heart, and take away a central element of her identity as an independent woman. Addressing the issue solely as a technical problem would fix the car (although only temporarily, since the trips to the body shop would likely come with increasing frequency), but it would not get at the underlying adaptive challenge: refashioning an identity and finding ways to thrive within new constraints.
In congregations, many adaptive challenges also have technical aspects. For example, congregations that are considering partnerships with other congregations face significant technical challenges around governance, finances and staff. But to be successful, the congregations involved also need to address the adaptive elements of identity, purpose and culture.
Like Marty and his mother, systems, organizations, families, and communities resist dealing with adaptive challenges because doing so requires changes that partly involve an experience of loss. Ruth is no different in principle from the legacy elements of the newly merged company that do not want to give up what they each experience as their distinctiveness.
Sometimes, of course, an adaptive challenge is way beyond our capacity, and we simply cannot do anything about it, hard as we might try. Vesuvius erupts. But even when we might have it within our capacity to respond successfully, we often squander the opportunity, as with the American automobile industry in the past decades.
You know the adage “People resist change.” It is not really true.
People are not stupid. People love change when they know it is a good thing. No one gives back a winning lottery ticket. What people resist is not change per se, but loss. When change involves real or potential loss, people hold on to what they have and resist the change. We suggest that the common factor generating adaptive failure is resistance to loss. A key to leadership, then, is the diagnostic capacity to find out the kinds of losses at stake in a changing situation, from life and loved ones to jobs, wealth, status, relevance, community, loyalty, identity, and competence. Adaptive leadership almost always puts you in the business of assessing, managing, distributing, and providing contexts for losses that move people through those losses to a new place.
At the same time, adaptation is a process of conservation as well as loss. Although the losses of change are the hard part, adaptive change is mostly not about change at all. The question is not only, “Of all that we care about, what must be given up to survive and thrive going forward?” but also, “Of all that we care about, what elements are essential and must be preserved into the future, or we will lose precious values, core competencies, and lose who we are?” As in nature, a successful adaptation enables an organization or community to take the best from its traditions, identity, and history into the future.
However you ask the questions about adaptive change and the losses they involve, answering the~ is difficult because the answers require tough choices, trade-offs, and the uncertainty of ongoing, experimental trial and error. That is hard work not only because it is intellectually difficult, but also because it challenges individuals’ and organizations’ investments in relationships, competence, and identity. It requires a modification of the stories they have been telling themselves and the rest of the world about what they believe in, stand for, and represent.
Helping individuals, organizations, and communities deal with those tough questions, distinguishing the DNA that is essential to conserve from the DNA that must be discarded, and then innovating to create the organizational adaptability to thrive in changing environments is the work of adaptive leadership.