Adaptive LeadershipThe leadership challenge is how to ensure that your organisation, your team has a deep adaptive capacity. It is ensuring that adaptability is part of your very DNA as you navigate the volatile, uncertain and complex future. In order to develop this vital adaptive capacity there are certain things that you can do as a leader. You can be intentional in the pursuit of adaptability rather than merely wistfully hope ‘that it happens’. Smart leaders intentionally go about building this adaptive capacity in their organisation and team. It might just be the most important responsibility you have as a leader.

Here are four things you can do to ensure that your team / organisation have adaptive capacity.

1. Diagnose and frame the adaptive challenge

The most common mistake is that adaptive challenges faced are not understood as adaptive challenges. This means that how we tackle them is often wrong and our efforts to solve the problem simply contribute to a greater problem. One of the ways to determine if the challenge you are facing is adaptive in nature is to ask whether or not this challenge is one you seem to be constantly facing. You will hear comments such as, “this is the same conversation we were having 6 months ago” or you will recognise the same issue consistently reappearing on your agenda. If this is the case the chances are it is a misdiagnosed adaptive challenge.

Let me explain things in a manner that will make more sense. As a leader you are basically facing two different types of challenges: technical and adaptive. In a technical challenge the problem is clear, the solution known and your task is to apply the solution to the problem. In such cases experience is valuable and it needs to be recognised that technical challenges can be extremely complex in nature. A simple example of a technical problem would be: I have a headache and go to the doctor. She diagnoses a brain tumour (problem clear) and recommends an operation (known solution) that will solve the problem. The locus of work here is the authority figure (the surgeon and the team) that then applies the solution to the problem. A complex, and difficult situation but one that is known, there is a solution and experience is valuable – a technical problem.

In an adaptive problem the very nature of the problem is unlike anything we have previously encountered. Another way of defining an adaptive challenge is, ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’. The problem itself requires learning and a stepping back and asking, ‘what is really going on here?’ Normally, in our quick-to-action, need to fix world we rush into solution mode before accurately diagnosing the real problem. In other words we rush to ‘technical solutions’ when facing an undiagnosed adaptive challenge with fatal results. This is when you seem to constantly be dealing with the same problem that just doesn’t go away!

Having diagnosed the real problem, the solution will require ‘new learning’. There is nothing in the locker (in your experience) that equips you (and your team) to deal with the problem. This is why leaders (and teams) who aren’t at heart ‘learners’ are in trouble when facing adaptive challenges.

Learning is a fundamental requirement at both the diagnostic stage as well as the solution finding stage. Questions such as, ‘what needs to be learnt here? and ‘where can I / we find that learning?’ open the pathway towards a solution. Finally, all the stakeholders need to be involved – something that is a distinct differential from what happens in a technical challenge.

2. Decide what to keep, discard and create

The ‘new learning’ that an adaptive challenge demands means that there will need to be things that have worked in the past that will now need to be discarded. This is never easy especially when individuals (or teams) are heavily invested in those particular models or solutions. ‘Letting go’ of things that are held onto with affection is always tough but it is also necessary in order to create the capacity to find the ‘new solutions’.

In his epic Congressional speech to a nation wracked by civil war on the 1st December 1862, President Lincoln said the following: “The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country”. The keyword being, ‘disenthrall’ – that ability to disengage with that which we hold onto with affection.

Discarding past solutions is exactly this! That said, finding new solutions never means that the past is irrelevant or of no use. To suggest such would be disingenuous. The difficult balance is to know what to keep and what to discard and both sides of this equation are required. There might well also be the need to ‘create’ something and when it comes to creation it brings into focus the importance of experimentation – and cultural permission to do so, the importance of learning from failure and building all this into the organisational DNA.

Building adaptive capacity in your team or organisation requires that you are constantly reviewing what to keep, discard and create as part of the on-going learning challenge. Time and practice make it easier to get this essential element ‘right’ within your organisational culture.

3. Reduce dependency on authority

In the traditional hierarchical organisation there is a clear line and understanding as to how authority works. For many this becomes an unchallenged assumption as to ‘how things work’ and the ‘way we do things’. All too often we experience the frustration of dealing with a system or process in which those you are dealing with don’t have the necessary authority to solve your problem or deal with your situation. Building adaptive capacity requires a deliberate effort to reduce this dependency on authority. It requires stimulating the things that feed self-organisation and individuals taking responsibility for that which confronts them. What this looks like and how it all plays out is more difficult to determine and will, to some extent, depend on the particular situation or set of circumstances. However, adaptive intelligence and building capacity for such requires reducing an over-reliance on authority.

A good first step would be to review the extent to with authority is embedded within your ‘system’. What purpose that having that authority serve and what might happen were you to start to dismantle it? The usual cries by way of response to such questions of “chaos” and “there would be no control” are assumptions that warrant challenging. Invariably those who have been brave enough to travel this road discover surprising benefits such as staff taking greater responsibility for things, greater engagement and commitment, better and quicker service resulting in higher satisfaction levels with both staff and customers alike.

The adaptive leadership model makes an important distinction between ‘authority’ and ‘leadership’. The role and function of authority is orientated around order, protection and direction; leadership on the other hand involves mobilizing people, interventions and is not dependent on a title or position. Understanding this distinction is to engage in a deeper level of conversation about leadership and what it looks like within your organisation. To release the potential of a reduced dependency on authority, making this distinction and having this conversation will be important.

4. Create productive tension

Leadership has often been viewed as ‘keeping the peace’, ‘bringing about balance and equilibrium’ and ensuring everyone is comfortably ‘on-board’. Of course all these notions have their place but good adaptive leaders understand the need to create disequilibrium. They understand that in the quest to develop adaptive capacity, there is the need to intentionally create a productive tension as a means to an end. This is perhaps a little like the pain necessary to get physically fit.

Productive tension – and the key word here is ‘productive,’ means that the setting is creating the learning, challenges, thinking and action necessary to develop adaptability. Smart leaders are looking to do this consistently and as they do so, they are directly contributing to the adaptive capacity building amongst there team / organisation. Creating this ‘productive tension’ could be as simple as deliberately positioning an alternative perspective or viewpoint to the one that is entrenched or the one that provides the underpinning assumption to the decision being acted on.

One final (important) tip

Adaptive processes essentially mean managing change. The key thing here is for you, the leader, to recognise and understand that you are really managing the ‘sense of loss’ that may be real or perceived by the respective stakeholders. Managing this sense of loss is vital for any successful change or adaptive process and the failure on the part of the leader to recognise this can often torpedo the entire change / adaptive process.

We invite you to connect with our team if you need further assistance in ensuring you and your team are ‘Future-Fit.’. Our presentation / workshop ‘Being Future-Fit’ clarifies the changing context for leaders and explores the problem of ‘what to do next’ in order to be an effective and successful ‘future-fit’ leader in tomorrow’s world.

The workshop defines what leaders need to know, do, and be in order to lead confidently and effectively into an uncertain and adaptive future. TomorrowToday believes that leadership is always context specific and so this is an important foundation from which to have a further and deeper conversation.


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