Image by Dimitris Vetsikas from Pixabay
April 23, 2021

How to lead organisations through Adaptive Change

By Ty Francis

Continuing our focus on understanding adaptive change and the leadership skills needed, it’s time to hear from a practitioner.

Building on the theory I shared in my book review of “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership“, I’m delighted to share the experience of Ty Francis. Readers may recall that Ty is the founder of meus, plus a film-maker, facilitator & leadership coach. His practice includes helping leaders and organisations both recognise & address adaptive change.

Ty has shared with us before on topics including Humanology, innovation, vision & the need for systemic work. So, I’m delighted to have Ty share both his psychological and hands-on experience of addressing adaptive challenges. Over to Ty to add his perspective to this conversation…

Leading Adaptive Change requires pausing

Problem-solving is the essence of leadership, yet leaders are often more oriented towards solutions rather than problems. After all, in complex organisational change programmes, problems keep mounting up exponentially. They can be seen as a distraction rather than a strategic enabler of continuous improvement. The sheer number of problems means that short-cuts are taken. Whilst partial relief is often found, the core of the problem remains and recurs. If leaders are not careful, they can be caught in a never-ending cycle where resolution evades them…

Pausing to consider the true nature of a problem is often counter-cultural yet invaluable in corporate life and is the essence of adaptive change. Importantly, Adaptive Leadership is not a style of leadership but a way of understanding and working with problems. It is demanding, as it offers no ready-made template or tick-list of things to do – although there are some pragmatic and useful principles.

Harvard University’s Ronald Heifetz, who developed the thinking, suggest that there are two radically different kinds of problems. Those that require the application of existing knowledge and those that require experimentation, innovation and adaptation. British academic Keith Grint describes these sorts of problems as “Wicked Problems” – where there is no certainty about the right thing to do and no agreement that any solution will have a positive impact. Tackling them can only be done through creative collaboration. Tame solutions do not solve wicked problems.  Equally, for Heifetz, you cannot use technical know-how to resolve adaptive challenges. If you do, you will fail.

How to spot an adaptive problem

Therefore, in leading change, there are important principles to bear in mind from this discrimination between technical and adaptive problems:

  • You won’t be able to solve adaptive challenges by following pre-existing methodologies, and you need to go outside of formal authority structures to get things done
  • To move forwards, old ways must be left behind – which can be politically testing, as leaders need to challenge the expectations of those who gave them power and rely on them for answers
  • Since solutions are unknown, leaders have to embrace experimentation which carries with it some risk of disorientation, conflict, and failure
  • It requires real ownership of problems as well as a willingness to consult and collaborate widely across the stakeholder network. Bring some consultants in for sure, but don’t expect them to have the answers – instead, engage them to work more creatively with others
  • Because adaptive challenges involve emotions as well as intellect, leaders need to be able to inspire their people and to maintain emotional commitment over time.

Adaptive Change hurts but can be transformational

Adaptive change is painful – it takes time and requires real learning as well as a shift in thinking, values and behaviours. What enables leaders to respond well to adaptive challenges? According to Heifetz leaders need to get on the balcony and take a long, hard, objective look at the different dimensions of the problem, and really see ‘the big picture’; they need to reinterpret and reframe the problem; they need to gather a diverse and collaborative group of people around them; they need to encourage open communication and empower workers to take decisions…

Adaptive Change leadership style

This philosophy – that to survive you need to adapt – represents a truly transformational opportunity for a company. It is also at the heart of cultural change. Finally, in engaging in adaptive change, leaders need to be open to change themselves… This might sound daunting, as ultimately there are no elegant solutions – just a series of trade-offs. For leaders, our abilities to carefully question authority and orthodoxy; to embrace constructive dissent; to communicate in new ways, and to form new relationships across networks, are going to become increasingly important… 

Can you spot Adaptive Changes needed in your business?

Thanks to Ty for his analysis and sharing what he has learnt in practice. What’s your experience?

Considering the above delineation between adaptive & technical leadership, what needs to change? Can you see ways that you could adapt your way of working? What has helped your team with such Wicked Problems? It would be good to hear from different leaders experience when facing the need for Adaptive Change.