Taking on an adaptive mindset for change

– When a problem just will not go away, try looking at it through an adaptive lens

9 February 2024

What do you do when a problem just will not go away? If you want to catalyse transformation, you must be able to distinguish between technical and adaptive challenges and choose the matching approach to solve the challenge and make change happen.

“Here we go again.” We all probably know that exasperated frustration when it feels like we have been trying to overcome the same challenge for what seems like an eternity, but we are not shifting. Meetings upon meetings discussing new solutions, spending time and effort implementing them and, still, “people” will not change.

But when a problem just will not go away, it is time to question the nature of the problem you are trying to solve. 

Distinguishing between two types of challenges

Harvard researchers Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky distinguish between two types of challenges: technical challenges and adaptive challenges. Knowing what characterises these two types of challenges will enable you to match a more effective approach with the situation you are faced with. 

Here is what you need to know about technical and adaptive challenges and how you might switch to an adaptive approach when needed.

A technical challenge
is a problem that can be clearly defined because we have a good understanding of what is causing the problem. In many cases, there is one solution or approach that is known to be better than others. The implementation of the solution is fairly predictable; we know that if we do X, then Y will most likely follow, and the problem will be solved. An experienced engineer will be able to fix most faults that arise in production machinery, a best-practice case can instruct how to optimise a manufacturing process, and a great IT team can solve the difficult challenges of integrating IT infrastructure. These are complicated and demanding challenges, but best practice and expertise can lead to the efficient selection of a good solution.

When a problem persists, chances are you have been relying on a technical solution to solve your adaptive challenge.

An adaptive challenge is a more difficult one to define, where there might be many possible causes and many possible solutions. We might have an idea of some “end state” that we want to move towards, but the result and the journey that we take to get there can land in vastly different places. An adaptive challenge will have a high level of novelty, which means that we cannot simply copy and paste a solution from elsewhere because it will not have the same outcome. For that reason, while we can draw inspiration from various solutions, our solution will need to be found through experimentation.

When COVID hit, the world was hurled into a new state, facing challenges that we had never seen at that level of scale and severity. As can be seen from the varying national approaches to restrictions and protocols, we were forced to experiment to figure out what would work. And we would not know which approach would come out on top until several years had passed (we might not even know yet).

Another characteristic of an adaptive challenge is that overcoming the challenge requires a shift in the mindset and behaviour of the people involved. It might be that we need to overcome “the way we have always done things” or address underlying fear of change. During the pandemic, the adoption of protocols, such as wearing a mask, distancing from others and isolating when sick, came down to a person’s awareness, understanding and willingness to do them.

It is important to note that complex challenges will have elements that are technical and other elements that are adaptive in nature – the key is to diagnose which is which and to adjust your approach accordingly.


Increasing a team’s feedback culture

In a pharmaceutical company, the leader of the Sales department wanted to increase the feedback culture in her team. She had invested in a training module for everyone to learn a feedback tool. They learnt the model and spent the afternoon practising giving feedback to each other. Fast-forward to a few weeks later, the leader of the department was frustrated that people were still not having feedback conversations with each other.

Learning a new tool, like this feedback model, is a technical solution to the challenge and might be part of the solution – but it has not addressed the root of the problem. As the problem persisted, the leader decided to approach the problem as an adaptive one.

She investigated the problem from the perspective of her colleagues. Her colleagues had all bought into the idea that more feedback would lead to better collaboration and better results, so it was not that there was no desire to change behaviour. So, what else might be holding them back?

She came to see that the deeper obstacle to giving feedback was that it did not feel safe to give real feedback to a peer because they would be risking how that feedback would impact their working relationship. With this realisation in mind, she reframed her challenge. She asked her colleagues: “what needs to be true to make feedback a safe experience?” The department listed their ideas and began to experiment.

Solving adaptive challenges requires us to see the problem from a new perspective – what Heifetz and Linsky call “moving to the balcony”.

Moving to the balcony: how to open your mindset to solve an adaptive challenge

As we accept that we have an adaptive challenge to solve, we need to acknowledge that the change surrounding an adaptive challenge will also be different. 

This brings us to four invitations to lean into:

  1. Participate in the change
  2. Be deliberately slow
  3. Overcome the incompetence bias
  4. Learn to “not know”

Participate in the change

A technical challenge affords us the opportunity to view the challenge from the outside; we are not part of the problem, and we will not need to adapt to solve it – the change happens outside of “us”. For example, I do not need to change myself to get the engine fixed in my car. But with an adaptive challenge, we cannot separate ourselves or people, generally, from the challenge, and therefore, we will need to adapt to move forward. A person trying to live a more healthy lifestyle after a cardiac arrest will need to adapt their mindset and habits to achieve the result they desire. A management team wanting more psychological safety in the organisation needs to adapt and lead the change with their own behaviour. We are participants in the change, whether we like it or not – and the invitation is therefore to choose to participate. Ask yourself how you might need to adapt to move the system forward and commit to that effort.

Be deliberately slow

Facing a difficult challenge feels uncomfortable, and most of us have a natural inclination to find a solution as quickly as possible. Collectively, our organisations are geared for speed as we attempt to implement solutions as fast as we can – so we can efficiently move on to the next challenge or opportunity. The thing is that changing mindsets and behaviour takes time, finding new solutions takes time and testing which solutions work also takes time. Working in an organisation more often than not feels fast paced, so when we take on adaptive challenges, we need to be deliberately slow. Being deliberately slow might include making space to take a deep breath, which will deactivate your nervous system and help you to see more clearly, or it might include seeking “balcony moments” in which you might be able to see things from a new perspective.

Overcome the incompetence bias

Most bosses, steering committees or investors are likely to have a strong preference for certainty over uncertainty. And generally, most of us like to know where we are going and how it will look when we get there. When implementing a technical solution, not knowing the next step in the process or how the outcome will look could come down to inexperience or “incompetence”. But when seeking an adaptive solution, not knowing the process and the outcome is a given. The tricky part is when the adaptive challenge is being perceived as a technical one by our key stakeholders, making us look “incompetent”. In this situation, we need to invite key stakeholders to understand that we are problem-solving in a new realm, that we do not know the answers, but we are doing everything we can to continuously gather data and intuitions that will guide the next decision.

Learn to “not know” 

“Not knowing” is not widely celebrated in most working cultures. On a personal level, it also feels better to be the person that everyone goes to for answers and to be able to “save the day” with your great knowledge rather than say “I’m not sure”. However, the nature of an adaptive challenge means that we do not have all the answers and we need to hold on while a solution emerges. We need to build (mental and emotional) strength in individuals and teams so that they can function in a continued state of uncertainty and “not knowing”. Being in a state of feeling like we have all the answers also has its downside in an adaptive challenge because we are less open to listening and taking in different perspectives, which is also critical to solution finding.

Most challenges that we face in our work environments are complex and will have elements of both technical and adaptive challenges. Heifetz states that the most common source of failure in leadership is that people treat adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems. 

Therefore, when faced with a problem that just will not go away, take a step back from trying to solve it and try to see it through an adaptive lens.

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