Adaptive vs technical challenges

When can a movement help us move on a problem?


June 2021


Katrina Marshall Dyrting

The number of challenges we face as this year unfolds is countless. A global economy grappling with the effects of a lasting pandemic. Consumer pressures to act on sustainability issues. A lasting shift towards flexible work conditions. An undeniable demand to tackle inequality at the workplace and beyond.

Organisations are feeling the heat to address these challenges to be fit for the future and simultaneously create a workplace that is fit for humans. The organisations that can respond and transform, while running the business, will stay relevant in the future.

Changing the way we change

When evolution is needed in our organisations, most organisations turn to classic change methodologies with – to put it cynically – ivory tower decision-making, big bang reveals and scoped sequential cascading exercises. The epic challenges mentioned above are going to take a different approach: if we want to tackle these challenges, we need to change the way we change.

In order to propose a new approach to change, we must first understand what characterises the challenges that we face. Management thinkers Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky offer a useful distinction between two types of challenges: technical challenges and adaptive challenges.

Technical challenges are easily defined, and their solution exists within the boundaries of knowledge that we already have within the problem space. People with more knowledge (experts) will be able to fast-track the solving of the challenge. A simplified example of a technical challenge is the assembly of flat-pack furniture: it comes with a detailed set of instructions, call the manufacturer if you get stuck, and you will get better with practice.

Adaptive challenges are difficult to define, as they exist in a world of complex interdependencies. If we “solve” one problem, several new problems are created. There is no single solution to an adaptive challenge but rather many possible solutions that need to be tried and tested. Because of the increased complexity of adaptive challenges, we are required to go beyond the boundaries of what we already know, to collaborate in search of new perspectives and to learn together through prototyping and innovation.

Technical challenges Adaptive challenges
  • Easy to identify
  • Quick and easy solutions
  • Requires small changes within known boundaries
  • Can be solved by expert or "authority"
  • Solutions can be implemented quickly
  • Difficult to identify (and easy to deny)
  • Requires changes in values, beliefs and approaches to work
  • Requires a lot of changes across many, sometimes unknown, boundaries
  • No quick fixes, requires constant experimentation

The problem with classic top-down change management is that we treat adaptive challenges as if they were technical ones. And to exacerbate that problem, many of our large organisations are now stuck in a structure built for that way of thinking.

How to get unstuck? Put the opportunity to drive change into the hands of everyone in the organisation. Allow change to surge through your organisation as a movement. Within our organisations, let us redefine HOW change happens, WHO ignites and performs it, and WHEN it might be triggered.