In a hard hitting and sobering Rolling Stone article titled, ‘The Point of No Return: Climate Change Nightmares Are Already Here’ there was a quote that stood out as being highly relevant for leaders.

The context was the plight of the Pacific Northwest salmon (changes in their breeding habits and patterns) and a conversation about this with concerned fishermen who said,

We have never seen anything like this before. So when you have no experience with something like this, it gets like, ‘What the hell’s going on?’”

There are many leaders for whom those words would resonate.

Head under PCThey are words that aptly capture the brutal reality of facing adaptive challenges where what is being encountered is unlike anything that you have previously encountered (“We’ve never seen anything like this before”). The nature of an adaptive challenge is that it is unlike anything you can identify from your experience. It is new, different and often unanticipated. You encounter attitudes, behaviours and events that are unprecedented and as you look to respond, there is not much from your experience that you can apply to the situation at hand.

That is the core challenge of an adaptive challenge; experience is of no help (“So when you have no experience with something like this…”). Leaders trying to navigate the future by relying on their experience are in serious trouble. The simple reason being that the future is increasing about adaptive challenges.

[bctt tweet=”Leaders trying to navigate the future by relying on their experience are in serious trouble. ” username=”Tomorrowtrends”]

But there is something to be done.

The fishermen’s response provides the clue as to the best response to an adaptive challenge; “What the hell’s going on?”

When facing an adaptive challenge – which can also be described as ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’, the best response is to pause and ask, “what the hell’s going on?”

Stepping back (from the challenge) and diagnosing what is really taking place is key to finding a meaningful way forward. All too often in response to an adaptive challenge leaders don’t step back (far enough or long enough), don’t ask any diagnostic questions and drive straight into ‘problem solution’ mode. That is what you have been taught to do – act, do, decide (quickly), keep moving forward and all the other subtle and not so subtle pressures leaders have been subjected too in terms of how to act and respond.

It is obvious but worth noting that an adaptive challenge is distinct from a crisis. In a crisis leaders have little time to act and need to be decisive and prepared to act with little or no information. We are not talking about a crisis here. Too many leaders today are facing their adaptive challenges by dredging their experience and acting too hastily before understanding what is really happening.

So how do you know something is an adaptive challenge?

Well it is likely to be an on-going problem that you have had for some time on which you are making no progress. When you hear things such as, “we were having this same conversation a year ago” or “we have made no progress on this issue” the chances are you are dealing with an adaptive challenge that you haven’t fully diagnosed as such.

Beyond the initial response of stepping back and diagnosing (asking questions) the need for learning at the diagnostic stage as well at the solution stage is paramount. This is why if you are not a ‘learning leader’ or a learning organisation, the chances of successfully dealing with the future (one filled with increasing adaptive challenges) is significantly impaired.

“What the hell’s going on?” might just be the best thing you can ask right now in response to that problem that is simply not going away!


TomorrowToday specialises in helping leaders and leadership teams understand and know how to respond to adaptive challenges. It is what we call being ‘Future-Fit’. If you would like further information on how we might be able to help you deal with adaptive challenges please do contact me at [email protected]

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