The Practice of Adaptive Change Management

Ronald Heifetz

As Ron Heifetz states, “people in authority are under tremendous pressure to provide easy and decisive solutions to problems.”  This is true for government leaders, business executives, and project managers.  Unfortunately, some problems don’t have easy technical solutions.  They are what Heifetz refers to as adaptive challenges, and they require very different kind of leadership capability.

Ronald Heifetz is a Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership and co-founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  He is known for his groundbreaking work during the past two decades on the practice and teaching of leadership and his research focuses on how to build adaptive capacity in societies, businesses, and nonprofits.

To help illustrate the point, Heifetz distinguishes between two types of problems:  Technical and Adaptive.

Technical problems are easy to identify.  They often lend themselves to quick and easy solutions, and they can be solved by an authority or expert.  Often the solutions can be implemented quickly or even by edict.  People are generally receptive to technical solutions because they are straightforward and read like step-by-step instructions.

Adaptive problems, on the other hand, are difficult to identify and often easy to deny.  They require changes in values, beliefs, roles, relationships and approaches to work.  They usually require change  in numerous places and they cross defined boundaries and turf.  Adaptive problems require that the people with the problem do the work of solving it.  The solutions can take time to implement because they often require experimentation and a iterative process of discovery.  There is no predefined solution.  There is no expert with the answer.

Some signs you have an adaptive challenge?

  • Crisis
  • Problems resurface time and again
  • Persistent conflict
  • People will need to learn new ways of behaving or working
  • Current know-how won’t solve the problem
  • Collaboration is required to solve the challenge

Organization change is always an adaptive challenge.  When change initiatives fail it is usually because the pressure to meet deadlines, budgets, and competing objectives pushes project managers to treat adaptive challenges as if they were technical.

And moving up the food chain, the executive sponsors of change projects also fail for the same reason.  Pressed to meet financial objectives, they often overlook the complexity of the adaptive challenges and set inflexible expectations, hoping their edict will drive employees toward success.

Outsourcing and technology implementations, merger integration, divestiture, restructuring and leadership transitions are adaptive challenges.  Yes, they do have significant technical components, but ultimately, the success of these initiatives will be determined by how well the adaptive challenges were managed.

And that’s not about the answers.  It’s about framing the right questions and listening for the deeper understanding required to guide others to solutions.

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2 thoughts on “The Practice of Adaptive Change Management

  1. I like the distinction between technical and adaptive problems. Most projects, especially technology projects, are led by technical experts that have one way of doing things. They are successful technologists because they think analytically and have a linear mindset. This approach never works when trying to solve people problems. You can’t convert emotions to lines on a project plan. The other thing I see regularly is that when problems occur, project teams look “up the food chain,” as you say, and hope that they get solutions from above. Your post suggests that it may not be that easy. In my experience, you are right.

  2. It seems to me that resolving these “adaptive” problems requires a collective buy in from more than just people involved in technology. I have read this in books, and my business experience so far corroborates this notion. If an organization either lacks vision at the highest levels, or is unwilling to vigourously encourage involvement from all stakeholders touched by change, then more than likely the initiative will fail. The notion that standalone technnical implementation on its own will magically solve problems is so obviously flawed to those of us who think about such matters, but somehow this misconception seems to still be present in the business world. I think a good project champion, or evangelist who can bring all parties to the table, uniting the technical and business personnel behind a well defined goal can be critical to success – at least when there is a technical component to the change being undertaken. But the question is, will executives pay for this ability? Can they afford not to pay for it? There seems to be a lot of people “selling” that capability, but in the end it’s difficult to know who really possesses it.

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