Adaptive vs. Technical Challenges

Distinguishing Technical Problems from Adaptive Challenges

adapted and edited from The Practice of Adaptive Leadership:  Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky

The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems. What’s the difference? While technical problems may be very complex and critically important (like replacing a faulty heart valve during cardiac surgery), they have known solutions that can be implemented by current knowhow. They can be resolved through the application of authoritative expertise and through the organization’s current structures, procedures, and ways of doing things. Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses, and generating the new capacity to thrive anew.

Problems do not always come neatly packaged as either “technical” or “adaptive.” When you take on a new challenge at work, it does not arrive with a big T or A stamped on it. Most problems come mixed, with the technical and adaptive elements intertwined.

Here’s a homey example. As of this writing, Marty’s mother, Ruth, is in good health at age ninety-five. Not a gray hair on her head (although she has dyed a highlight in her hair so that people will know that the Wack is natural). She lives alone and still drives, even at night. When Marty goes from his home in New York City up to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to do his teaching at the Kennedy School at Harvard, Ruth often drives from her apartment in nearby Chestnut Hill to have dinner with him.

Some time ago, Marty began noticing new scrapes on her car each time she arrived for their dinner date. Now one way to look at the issue is: the car should be taken to the body shop for repair. In that sense, this situation has a technical component: the scrapes can be solved by the application of the authoritative expertise found at the body shop. But an adaptive challenge is also lurking below the surface. Ruth is the only one of her contemporaries who still drives at all, never mind at night. Doing so is a source of enormous pride (and convenience) for her, as is living alone, not being in a retirement community, and still functioning more or less as an independent person. To stop driving, even just to stop driving at night, would require a momentous adjustment from her, an adaptation. The technical part is that she would have to pay for cabs, ask friends to drive her places, and so forth. The adaptive part can been found in the loss this change would represent, a loss of an important part of the story she tells herself about who she is as a human being, namely, that she is the only ninety-five-year-old person she knows who still drives at night. It would rip out a part of her heart, and take away a central element of her identity as an independent woman. Addressing the issue solely as a technical problem would fix the car (although only temporarily, since the trips to the body shop would likely come with increasing frequency), but it would not get at the underlying adaptive challenge: refashioning an identity and finding ways to thrive within new constraints.

In congregations, many adaptive challenges also have technical aspects.  For example, congregations that are considering partnerships with other congregations face significant technical challenges around governance, finances and staff.  But to be successful, the congregations involved also need to address the adaptive elements of identity, purpose and culture.

Like Marty and his mother, systems, organizations, families, and communities resist dealing with adaptive challenges because doing so requires changes that partly involve an experience of loss. Ruth is no different in principle from the legacy elements of the newly merged company that do not want to give up what they each experience as their distinctiveness.

Sometimes, of course, an adaptive challenge is way beyond our capacity, and we simply cannot do anything about it, hard as we might try. Vesuvius erupts. But even when we might have it within our capacity to respond successfully, we often squander the opportunity, as with the American automobile industry in the past decades.

You know the adage “People resist change.” It is not really true.

People are not stupid. People love change when they know it is a good thing. No one gives back a winning lottery ticket. What people resist is not change per se, but loss. When change involves real or potential loss, people hold on to what they have and resist the change. We suggest that the common factor generating adaptive failure is resistance to loss. A key to leadership, then, is the diagnostic capacity to find out the kinds of losses at stake in a changing situation, from life and loved ones to jobs, wealth, status, relevance, community, loyalty, identity, and competence. Adaptive leadership almost always puts you in the business of assessing, managing, distributing, and providing contexts for losses that move people through those losses to a new place.

At the same time, adaptation is a process of conservation as well as loss. Although the losses of change are the hard part, adaptive change is mostly not about change at all. The question is not only, “Of all that we care about, what must be given up to survive and thrive going forward?” but also, “Of all that we care about, what elements are essential and must be preserved into the future, or we will lose precious values, core competencies, and lose who we are?” As in nature, a successful adaptation enables an organization or community to take the best from its traditions, identity, and history into the future.

However you ask the questions about adaptive change and the losses they involve, answering the~ is difficult because the answers require tough choices, trade-offs, and the uncertainty of ongoing, experimental trial and error. That is hard work not only because it is intellectually difficult, but also because it challenges individuals’ and organizations’ investments in relationships, competence, and identity. It requires a modification of the stories they have been telling themselves and the rest of the world about what they believe in, stand for, and represent.

Helping individuals, organizations, and communities deal with those tough questions, distinguishing the DNA that is essential to conserve from the DNA that must be discarded, and then innovating to create the organizational adaptability to thrive in changing environments is the work of adaptive leadership.

Discussion Question (please use comments section at the bottom of the page):

  • What are some of the “adaptive” challenges that your congregation is facing?


Example of an Adaptive Growth Strategy (2:37)

16 comments on “Adaptive vs. Technical Challenges

  1. Eileen Watters on

    Our congregation has, in recent years, been somewhat “flat-lined” Now as we are finally restarting an upward trend in membership, we face the adaptive challenge of welcoming new families without immediately asking them to become committed to a capital campaign, or honoring established members who have been waiting for the opportunity to expand the space to include more for Adult and Children’s RE, etc.

  2. Treva Burger on

    What I am struggling with, literally today, is leadership development. We have a Nominating Committee that is essentially tasked with finding Board members and we rewrote the Nominating Committee policy before we changed governance structures because they have been having so much trouble finding Board members, and I am afraid we need to re-imagine it again even though we are already going through a lot of change. But I think what they do is make a list of “good” people and then ask until 3 say yes. And what we have is a Board full of good people who aren’t really functioning all that well. In their defense we switched governance structures and they really don’t understand what that means for them, but they have been shockingly non-proactive at figuring that out. Then we have committees that need new chairs and desperate outgoing chairs begging everyone they come across until someone says yes…I would like to see us transition to something like Media, where Joan and Marilyn are from, called Growth through Service, where (I think) you have open ended conversations with your potential leaders, or current leaders (and eventually everyone) who want to transition to something different, about what they love, what brings them joy, what they feel called to and then help them figure out where they fit. I am on the Ministry Executive team during this first year of the new structure and I think myself and the other lay leader are going to start by interviewing the leaders in transition to see if we can help them figure out where they fit and I think we’re going to need to meet with the Nominating Committee to compare notes, but I am trying to imagine how to do all this without making to many waves. I asked the minister a few weeks ago about something else and I said how do I do this without pissing anyone off and he said that’s like asking me the meaning of life. Sorry that’s so long, but maybe you can help me frame it before tomorrow.

  3. Joan Karasick on

    We are working on re-imagining membership – how we can better attract and welcome new members, how we can get and keep everyone active and engaged in the life of our community, and how we can embrace and address the changing needs of our members no matter what stage of life.

  4. Leah Purcell on

    Ok so my example of a problem is “Why is it that Sunday school attendance and ease of recruiting RE volunteers is dropping, even though RE registration numbers remain about the same?” And I think the adaptive challenge is “How how can RE provide a vibrant and nurturing religious community for families and also equip parents to foster UUism at home?”

  5. Leah Purcell on

    I appreciated learning more about “balcony time”. As a DRE, I have a practice of setting aside some time to look at all the irons I have in the fire. While it’s very helpful for me to look at what needs to be done next (technical) or even think about why something keeps going wrong or why people are gettting so upset (adaptive), I’m thinking true adaptive leadership happens when I take things back to a team (like the youth advisors, the RE Council or worship team) and get them to think about it adaptively.

  6. Marylin Huff on

    The Greater Philly Cluster has had trouble getting off the ground and planning actual events. While the congregational representatives often exhibit enthusiasm at cluster meetings, that enthusiasm usually dissapates when they try to take the ideas back to their congregations.

    As a leader of the cluster, I am struggling with how to address this issue. Clearly this is an adaptive problem, but it is at least a two teared problem:

    1: Disconnect between what the congregational representatives want from the cluster and the balance of how much effort they are willing to put in and how much support is available from JPD/CERG/UUA

    2: Disconnect between what the cluster reps sant from the cluster and what their home congregations want from the cluster.

    One person described is as: We have great plans when we meet as a cluster, but when I go back to my congregation and describe the idea to the minster/congegations, the response is a “scrunchy face.” This response pretty effictively deflates all enthusiasm.

  7. Lori Stone Sirtosky on

    I am having a hard time framing it as a “powerful question” because I’ve had it my mind as a yes/no question for the last few months but now I’m wondering if there’s a way to re-frame it without just playing semantics. The main question we are confronted with is, “Should we accept the gift of a building that has tentatively been offered to us, if it is ultimately offered to us?”

    My best attempt at making the question more powerful is, “How would our mission be impacted if we accept the gift of this building?”

    • Renee Ruchotzke on

      So the context of the question includes the possibility of the gift of a building. Your question, Lori, gets at that nicely! It begs the questions: Will a building help serve our mission? Will a building be a drag upon our recourses? Do we have other options that provide a presence in the community?
      Friends, what other thoughts might you offer?

  8. Renee Ruchotzke on

    The adaptive challenge that I’ve been working with is “How can we equip a critical mass of lay leaders in a congregation to be savvy ministry partners with clergy?” (Spoiler alert: H-UULTI is one of the “interventions” to help with that challenge.)

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