Adaptive change

This quote is from a recent book called “Leadership on the Line” by two Harvard profs. I’ll get the details up here later. Any emphasis is done by me. 

The Perils of Adaptive Change

Leadership would be a safe undertaking if your organization and communities only faced problems for which they already knew the solutions. Every day, people have problems for which they do, in fact, have the necessary know-how and procedures. We call these technical problems. But there is a whole host of problems that are not amenable to authoritative expertise or standard operating procedures. They cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community. Without learning new ways — changing attitudes, values, and behaviors — people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment. The sustainability of change depends on having the people with the problem internalize the change itself. People cannot see at the beginning of the adaptive process that the new situation will be any better than the current condition. What they do see clearly is the potential for loss. People frequently avoid painful adjustments in their lives if they can postpone them, place the burden on somebody else, or call someone to the rescue. When fears and passions run high, people can become desperate as they look to authorities for the answers. This dynamic renders adaptive contexts inherently dangerous. When people look to authorities for easy answers to adaptive challenges, they end up with dysfunction. They expect the person in charge to know what to do, and under the weight of that responsibility, those in authority frequently end up faking it or disappointing people, or they get spit out of the system in the belief that a new “leader” will solve the problem.

In fact, there’s a proportionate relationship between risk and adaptive change: The deeper the change and the greater the amount of new learning required, the more resistance there will be and, thus, the greater the danger to those who lead.

For this reason, people often try to avoid the dangers, either consciously or subconsciously, by treating an adaptive challenge as if it were a technical one. This is why we see so much more routine management than leadership in our society.

Indeed, the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify — in politics, community life, business or the nonprofit sector — is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems. In times of distress, when everyone looks to authorities to provide direction, protection, and order, this is an easy diagnosis mistake to make. In the face of adaptive pressures, people don’t want questions; they want answers. They don’t want to be told that they will have to sustain losses; rather, they want to know how you’re going to protect them from the pains of change. And of course you want to fulfill their needs and expectations, not bear the brunt of their frustration and anger at the bad news you’re giving. In mobilizing adaptive work, you have to engage people in adjusting their unrealistic expectations, rather than try to satisfy them as if the situation were amenable primarily to a technical remedy. You have to counteract their exaggerated dependency and promote their resourcefulness. This takes an extraordinary level of presence, time, and artful communication, but it may also take more time and trust than you have.


5 responses to “Adaptive change

  1. Franklin Morais

    August 6, 2010 at 3:18 am

    Amen, Pastor! More pastors and church leaders need to open up discussions in this area with their leadership boards. God sends the rain on the just and the unjust, however, when it comes to the rain on the unjust, especially learning revelations, the church does not seem to be able to receive it.

  2. Bev Sterk

    July 22, 2011 at 8:05 am

    thanks Pete…. made it through all those “voices” posts… and finally found yours from yesterday or the day b4… now need to read the other link, and then want to spend some time reading some of your other “musings” b4 going out to the field. today…

  3. Jack Tacoma

    November 25, 2012 at 6:32 am

    Just now leaving to meet, for the first time, a congregation in need of adaptive change. We are going to have a congregational conversation around Appreciative Inquiry. I was informed this week that there is quite a bit of tension in some people because of this. Your title :The Perils of…” seems telling. I may need to have an evening with the leaders about this…

  4. pastorpete

    November 25, 2012 at 7:48 am

    There are many congregations in need of adaptive or deep change. Titanic is my favourite illustration of the need for it. It takes courage and the Spirit moving people into their own deep change. May it go well.


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