Adaptive Challenge and The Leadership Challenge

Leadership and Management

Sometimes, leadership failure stems from the inability to differentiate the practice of management and leadership and the roles of managers and leaders.

Most managers are functionally very competent, skilful and good at problem-solving. Theywould have attained a certain level of functional experiences, had been very effectively in their functional roles,before gettingpromoted to the management level. However, at the management level, managers do not only deal with functional and task related issues, they also have to deal with people related issue. For most new managers, people issue is a new challenge to them because in their previous appointments, it is often left to their superiors to handle.This explains why we sometimes hear about managers who are technically very able but lack people skills, such as relating and communication. Perhaps, these managers are using task oriented problem-solving approaches to managepeople issues.

Conversely, we can argue that a good leader does not need to be technically very competent. While certain level of technical understanding is necessary to facilitate decision making, a good leader do not need to be a master of the craft. Rather, a good leader uses his/her leadership skills to motivate more technically gifted team members to perform better. A good example is the Head of State of many countries. He/she does not need to be an expert in finance, trade, foreign relationship and all others important government sectors. Rather, the Head of State appoints very competent individuals to run each of the ministries and his/her duty is to lead and support these individuals. However, the Head of State cannot be completely ignorant to the works of all the ministries because he/she is ultimately responsible for all the decisions made.

Problems arise when leaders manage to lead.

Technical and Adaptive Challenges

Dr Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linskyclassified organization challenges into two categories – technical challenge and adaptive challenge. Technical challenges are challenges where there are known answers and solutions. For example, production is halted because the machine is downed, the existing solutions are: 1) called a mechanic, 2) if you are a mechanic, purchase the replacement parts and repair it yourself, 3) buy a new machine or 4) out-source production. Either ways, there is a known solution to continue production. Managers, especially seasoned ones, excel at solving technical challenges.

Adaptive challenges refer to situations where there are no known solutions to the problem or cases where there are too many solutions but no clear choices.Adaptive challenges are by nature, adaptive, which also means they are fluid and change with circumstances.Adaptive challenges are volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous in nature. Solutions to this type of challenge usually require people to learn new ways of doing things, change their attitudes, values and norms and adopt an experimental mind-set. For example, a machine breaks down once every couple of months, despite regular maintenance.Theadaptive challenge here is the lack of ownership and care towards the machine because staff members see the machine as company’s property or rather, the company’s problem.

This machine example also illustrate when most leadership failure occurs – leaders treating adaptive challenges as technical challenges. Each time the machine breaks down, a technical solution is applied to get the machine up and running. However, the underlying issue on lack of ownership remains unresolved.

Adaptive challenges require adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership is based on the principles of shared responsibility and continuous learning. Adaptive challenges are full on unknowns, as such, the experimental mind set is essential because doing the same job better, longer and with more help will not solve adaptive challenge. To respond to adaptive challenges effectively, leaders need to beable to relate well with others and work in a team. Gone are the days of ‘The Great Man’ leadership notion where a single person, the great leader, is able to solve all problems by himself. ‘The Great Man’ leadership theory does not withstand the test of adaptive challenges for two reasons – firstly, no leader, no matter how brilliant he/she is, knows everything and has all the answers. Secondly, even if the leader has the answer, he/she will need to work with others to overcome the complexities that part of adaptive challenges. Teamwork matters. Furthermore, working in a team ensures knowledge is spread across more people, reducing the likelihood of similar problems arising in future.

Relating skills aside, leaders are also required be in a continuous sense-making mode to understand how the problem, environment, solutions and his/her relationship with the team, are evolving with time. When leaders are solving adaptive challenges, they have to be ready to commit time and energy and be prepared to cope with uncertainty and setbacks.

Some problems are a combination of technical and adaptive challenge. For example, skills development for staff members can be both a technical and adaptive challenge. To develop skills, the technical solution is to send staff members for training courses. However, to instil a continuous development mind-set where staff members attend training courses because they want to and not have to, adaptive solutions are needed to change the staff members attitude towards professional development. Sometimes, leaders and managers would only realise they are facing an adaptive challenge after all technical solutions are exhausted.

Single and Double Loop Learning

Another way to look at the difference between technical and adaptive challenge is through the concept of single and double loop learning by ChrisAgyris. Single loop learning focuses on using corrective action for problem solving. For example, if the room is cold, a single loop learning response is to turn up the air condition temperature. The problem solved through a direct action strategy. Double loop learning on the other hand takes a deeper look at the issue and examines the government variables thatcause the problems to occur in the first place. For example, the room is cold because the air condition default temperature is set at 17 oC and would revert to this level each time the unit is switch off and on. A double loop learning solution will be to calibrate and set the temperature to the desired level. Single loop approaches are used to solve straight line cause-and-effect type of problems because the solution is known and the problem can be remedied very quickly. Double loop approaches are used for dynamic situations where there are no quick fixes. Double loop approaches requires governing variables to be challenged or changedand to do so, people need to first find out what these variables are in order to design and implement effective solutions. Double loop learning is used for adaptive challenges.

The Leadership Challenge

The Leadership Challenge is fundamentally about the team and teamwork, not the leader. Looking closely at the 5 Leadership Practices – Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act and Encourage the Heart, of this leadership framework,aside from the first practice, Model the Way, the other four are largely team focused.

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, the creators behind The Leadership Challenge, define leadership as The art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations”. It is about leaders gettingteam members to follow willingly, especially across unknown territories and mobilizingthe team to move forward together and want to get extraordinary things done.

The 5 Leadership Practices shares similar characteristics with adaptive challenges:

Adaptive challenges are complex, multi-dimensional and difficult to solve, to overcome such challenges effectively. Leaders cannot solve adaptive challenges alone and have to deploy a mixed approach of various leadership and management tools. Each of the 5 Leadership Practices are by themselves a leadership tool and can be separately used to address adaptive challenges. However, using all 5 Practices together would lead to more effective change because it addresses multiple aspects of any leadership/adaptive challenge.

The 5 Leadership Practices is no silver bullet to overcome all adaptive challenges but it does provide leaders a good starting point to pull the team together.

References:

  • - A Survival Guide for Leaders. (2002) Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky. Havard Business Review.
  • - Double Loop Learning in Organizations. (1977) Chris Argyris. Havard Business Review.
  • - The Leadership Challenge. (2007) James Kouzes and Barry Posner.

 

Written by Joey NG (Facilitator)
on 11th December 2016