Becoming an Adaptive Leader

The Process of Adaptive  Leadership

From the Spring 2011 Issue of Lifelong Faith
Based on the work of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky

observe interpret interveneAdaptive leadership is an iterative process involving three key activities: (1) observing events and patterns around you; (2) interpreting what you are observing-developing multiple hypotheses about  what is really going on; and (3) designing interventions based on the observations and interpretations to address the adaptive challenge you have identified. Each of these activities builds on the ones that come before it; and the process overall is iterative: you repeatedly refine your observations, interpretations, and interventions.

One of the tendencies in organizations is that leaders feel pressure to solve problems quickly, to move to action. So they minimize the time spent in diagnosis, collecting data, exploring multiple interpretations of the situation, and alternative potential interventions. To diagnose an organization while in the midst of action requires the ability to achieve some distance from the “on-the-ground” events. Heifetz and Linsky use the metaphor of “getting on the balcony” above the “dance floor” to depict what it means to gain the distanced perspective necessary to see what is really happening. When a leader can move back and forth between balcony and dance floor, he or she can continually assess what is happening in the organization and take corrective action. When leaders perfect this skill, they are able to simultaneously keep one eye on the events happening immediately around them and the other eye on the larger patterns and dynamics.

A second tendency is that people begin analyzing the problem by personalizing them (“If only this person was a better leader … “) or attributing the situation to interpersonal conflict (“these two people don’t work well because their work styles are so at odds”). This tendency often obscures a deeper, more systemic (and perhaps more threatening) understanding of the situation, for example conflict between two people can be structural, not personal, even if it’s taken on a personal tone. To counteract the personalization of problems start with diagnosing and acting on the system (“moving outside in”) and then do the same for the self (“moving inside out”).

Designing Effective Interventions

Effective interventions mobilize people to take an adaptive challenge. Here is a checklist, a series of practices that can make your interventions more effective. They are presented as they might be employed more or less sequentially, but you can think of them as individual practices as well.

Step 1. Get on the Balcony

Observe what is going on around you. Stay diagnostic even as you take action. Develop more than one interpretation. Watch for patterns. Reality test your interpretations when it is self-serving or close to your default. Debrief with partners as often as you can to assess the information generated by your actions, and the interventions of others, in order to think through your next move.

Step 2. Determine the Ripeness of the Issue in the System

How resilient and ready are people to tackle the issue? An issue is ripe when the urgency to deal with it has become generalized across the organization. If only a subgroup or faction cares passionately, but most other groups in the system have other priorities on their mind, then the issue is not yet ripe.

The ripeness of an issue, then, is a critical factor in planning a strategy of intervention. Is the urgency localized in one subgroup and not yet widespread across the larger organization? Or, on the other hand, are people avoiding the hard work of dealing with the adaptive challenge at hand because the pain of doing so has reached too-high levels of disequilibrium? Is the prevailing momentum to treat the situation as a technical problem or an adaptive challenge? Your answer to these questions will affect how you frame your intervention strategy and the timing of your actions.

Step 3. Ask, Who Am I in This Picture?

How are you experienced by the various groups and subgroups? What role do you play in them? What perspectives on the adaptive issues do you embody for them? Because they are comfortable with the way you usually act, they are probably quite proficient at managing you in that role to ensure that you do not disturb their equilibrium.

Consistency is a high value in management but a significant constraint in leading adaptive change.

You will have to be less predictable that usual to get constructive attention and make progress on an adaptive issue.

Step 4. Think Hard About Your Framing

Thoughtful framing means communicating your intervention in a way that enables group members to understand what you have in mind, why the intervention is important, and how they can help carry it out. A well-framed intervention strikes a chord in people, speaking to their hopes and fears. That is, it starts where they are, not where you are. And it inspires them to move forward.

Think about the balance between reaching people above and below the neck. Some groups and some people need data first, before the emotion. For others, it is the reverse. Connect your language to the group’s espoused values and purpose. Consider the balance between strong attention-getting language and language that is loaded as to trigger flight-or-fight responses rather than engagement.

Step 5. Hold Steady

When you have made an intervention, think of it as having a life of its own. Do not chase after it. The idea will make its way through the system, and people will need time to digest it, think about it, discuss it, and modify it. If you think of it as “yours,” you are likely to get overly invested in your own image of it.

Once you have made an intervention, your idea is theirs. You cannot control what people do with your intervention. So as this process unfolds, resist the impulse to keep jumping in. Let people work with your idea. Listen closely to how various subgroups are responding to your ideas, so you can calibrate your next move. Watch for the ways and the elements of it that are taking hold. Watch for avoidance mechanisms, like an immediate rejection or silence.

Your silence is a form of intervention. It creates a vacuum for others to fill. They key is to stay present and keep listening.

Holding steady is a poised and listening response. People will appreciate, even if they never say so, the patience and respect it shows.

Step 6. Analyze the Factions That Begin to Emerge

As people in your own close-in group begin to discuss your intervention, pay attention to who seems engaged, who starts using your language or pieces of your idea as if it were their own. Listen for who resists the idea. Use these observations to help you see the contours of the factions that various people represent on the issue. Faction mapping of your close-in group will give you valuable information about the ways the larger system of people will deal with the issue, which is critically important because refining and implementing your change initiative will usually require the involvement of people from the larger system.

Step 7. Keep the Work at the Center of People’s Attention

Avoiding adaptive work is a common human response to the prospect of loss. Avoidance is not shameful; it is just human.

Expect that your team will find ways to avoid focusing on the adaptive challenge in doing their diagnosis as well as in taking action. Resistance to your intervention will have less to do with the merits of your idea and mostly to do with the fears of loss your idea generates.

It falls to you, your allies, and others who lead in the organization to keep the work at the center.Begin by trying to understand the impact of new directions on the constituents behind the people in your working group, and how the pleasure or displeasure of those constituents is going to play out in the behavior of the person. Then think about how you can help that person with their problem, e.g., presenting the idea to their group or making sure the person receives credit for making the new idea happen.

A second strategy is to help the members of your team who are worried about their own people, interpret their group’s resistance in terms of threat and loss. Dealing with the fears ofloss requires a strategy that takes these losses seriously and treats them with respect.

Finally, get allies. You need to share the burden of keeping the work at the center of people’s attention.

(Source: Chapter 9. Design Effective Interventions in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership)

Each of these seven steps can be understood as a skill set. Rate yourself on a scale from 1 to 10 for each of the seven steps. What are your strengths? Where do you need to build you skills?

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