Leading Through Adaptive Challenges

I began my military career at the US Army Infantry School where the motto is “Follow me!” Living that motto involves leading by example and knowing where you are going.

Those are good things, and not just for military leaders, right?

Where that approach becomes problematic is when we find ourselves in uncharted territory—facing what Ron Heifetz and colleagues call an adaptive challenge.

Adaptive challenges are ambiguous, systemic problems with no easy answers. There is no map or blueprint for action—and the solutions don’t reside in the formal leaders at HQ.

Progress on adaptive challenges requires changes in people’s values, attitudes, or habits of behavior—a change in mindsets.

Heifetz and colleagues differentiate an adaptive from a technical, or routine, challenge—which is a challenge we already have the know-how to address. When facing a technical challenge, it is appropriate for people in authority to provide clear guidance and the blueprint for action. But you get into real trouble if you apply technical solutions to adaptive challenges. Thus, the essential first step is to know what kind of problem you are dealing with.

Examples of Adaptive Challenges

Picture, for example, a highly successful, but set-in-its-ways organization facing a disruptive technology. The culture that has worked so well in the past needs to change if the company is to stay competitive. The prescriptive boss who tries to mandate changes to people’s values and deeper underlying assumptions will likely fail.

Another example is getting different departments (“silos”) who have competing interests to work as one unified team. Forcing the unification may work on the surface initially, but real progress will usually require a different approach.

Changes in strategy, restructuring, mergers, union negotiations, and regulatory shifts are more examples of situations that are fertile soil for adaptive challenges.

If you are operating in ambiguous, uncharted territory; if a directive style of leadership is backfiring; if making progress requires a shift in the mindsets of key stakeholders—you are likely dealing with an adaptive challenge.

Adaptive Leadership is Counter-Intuitive

Authority figures in the situations I just described are expected to have answers, and they will feel tremendous pressure to provide direction, protection, and order. And yet, and this is where it gets really interesting, if we are facing an adaptive challenge, leadership is resisting the urge and the expectations to provide direction, protection, and order. Leadership is giving the work back to the people, moving them into a place of disequilibrium—out of the status quo—and putting them into the proverbial “pressure cooker.” Exposing people to the risks, asking them tough questions, and putting the work on their shoulders. Leading through adaptive challenges must include getting people fully engaged and involved and not avoiding the important work that needs to be done.

With that in mind, Heifetz defines leadership as the activity of mobilizing people to make progress on adaptive challenges.

In the closing sentence of their 2001 HBR article, Heifetz and Laurie write, “One can lead with no more than a question in hand.” Asking important questions that we do not have the answer to ends up being one of the most powerful ways that we can lead because it takes us out of the role of providing solutions and begins to engage the people that need to do the work if we are to make progress.

Closing Reflections

As you think about the year ahead and the challenges you and your team are facing, which challenges seem especially aligned with how I have described adaptive challenges? Take a few minutes to reflect and, perhaps, read through this short article a second time. Then, write down the two or three challenges that come to mind for you.

1. __________________________________________________

2. __________________________________________________

3. __________________________________________________

Although there is more to the Adaptive Leadership approach than the questions that follow, answering the following questions can make a significant difference for you and your team as you press forward into uncharted territory and begin mobilizing people to make progress on important challenges.

1. What is the adaptive challenge? Metaphorically step to the balcony (off the field of play) and thoughtfully consider what the crux of the matter is. Write down the essence of the challenge in as few words as possible.

2. What is your perspective on this adaptive challenge? Why is it important to you? What assumptions are you making? What losses are at stake for you if progress is made? What competing goals, fears, or loyalties do you have? How are you contributing to the problem?

3. Who are the major stakeholders and what are their perspectives? Visualize the system. Put yourself in their shoes and explain how they see the challenge. Why is it important to them? What assumptions are they making? What losses are at stake for them? What competing goals, fears, or loyalties do they have? Why would they resist?

Resist the urge to move quickly to solutions; stay in the discomfort of seeking deep, shared understanding. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast!

Then, give the work back and regulate distress:

4. How will you give the work back to the people (mobilize people)? For example, let the organization feel the pressures. Cause people to learn what they must learn and to begin taking action. Disclose external threats. Ask really hard questions and let people struggle (don’t have the answers). Challenge unproductive norms. Expose conflicts. Talk about the elephant in the room. Resist providing direction, protection, and control. Challenge people!

5. How will you regulate distress? For example, foster psychological safety and cohesion, be a non-anxious presence, pace the work and manage the rate of change, instill confidence, and communicate optimism and hope (unwavering faith). Support people!

Let us close with a warning: If you are leading through an adaptive challenge, people will exert pressure on you to solve the problem. They expect you to have answers and to get them back to the status quo. By definition, however, the answer to an adaptive challenge does not exist within you. Progress–and often long-term survival–requires a shift in mindsets of people across the organization, and that requires them to be deeply engaged in the work.

Be a non-anxious, strong presence. Stay focused on what matters most in the long run.  Keep pressing across the threshold!


Author Note: I am a more effective leader for having learned this approach from Ron Heifetz in his “Art and Practice of Leadership Development” course at the Harvard Kennedy School. The course opened my eyes to aspects of leadership that I had not previously considered. I am grateful for that, and I weave the concepts into my own work developing leaders. To dig deeper, I recommend you start by reading these three gems by Heifetz and colleagues: (1) “The Work of Leadership,” (2) Leadership Without Easy Answers, and (3) Leadership On The Line: Staying Alive Through The Dangers of Change.