Why is identifying adaptive change important?

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5aa5c142 b2e0 47cf bf72 7eef5206f5f9 1781458 28029 gfqg3jym3k79Last week, I wrote about four leadership postures for organizational change. These postures shape our leadership stance, increasing the likelihood that our change process will achieve healthy results.

The first posture of those four was change identification - knowing what type of change we were dealing with: adaptive or technical. To recap the difference between the two:

"Adaptive changes deal with habits, mindsets, and behaviors, and require organizations and their leaders to learn something new to resolve the challenges at hand. Adaptive changes often have open-ended problem definitions and solutions. Technical changes, by contrast, require application of specific skills to bring a closed-ended issue to resolution."

Putting this posture first hints at its importance. So why is identifying adaptive change important for organizational leaders?

To understand its importance, we have to look at our usual starting point. For a summary of the reasons why, skip to the end - otherwise, read on!

Where we (tend to) start

As leaders, we are trained to attack most problems as technical issues, which our expertise or an outside product will be able to resolve. Perhaps our challenge fits squarely in the middle of our deep, core expertise, something we trained for, we have degrees and certifications in, and have practiced over time. Alternatively, we may perceive the current challenge to be adjacent to our core expertise, and so we tend to apply our expertise there as well - to the degree we can.

This is how most of us were taught to solve problems: see problem, find solution. This works very well when we are working our way up through our core expertise - whether deepening it, broadening it, or both. This works particularly well in fields where the same problems come up over and over again, and the application of technique, product, or knowledge is tried and proven suitable.

The problem comes when we find ourselves in our first leadership position where our core expertise is only a part of what we do. All of a sudden, the "Hello, Problem; meet Solution" approach doesn't work in all those other areas.

Our first instinct is, then, to see the fact that the solution didn't work as a matter of degree. We go back and check our work, and then increase the intensity of what we are doing, one way or another. And when that still doesn't work, we start troubleshooting: fiddle with this over here, adjust that over there, and see if that finally solves it.

In cases where intensity and troubleshooting don't work, we often find ourselves - and those who work for us and with us - frustrated, upset, and demoralized. We realize that the application of expertise hasn't worked, that increasing or decreasing the degree, intensity, or volume hasn't worked, and now we are stuck - having spent resources toward something that didn't get us where we wanted to go.

Our habits, our training, our expertise: all of these point us toward solving problems as technical ones. So we tend to apply technical expertise to leadership challenges and organizational situations. The problem is clear, the solution is clear, and, based on our authority as leaders, experts, or owners, we bring the problem to resolution.

When technical doesn't work

The problem is, as we well know, that's not always the case. We all deal with adaptive change more than we may even realize. In fact, the more leadership we experience, the less we see of technical issues and the more we deal with the adaptive. So being able to identify adaptive changes on the front end will help us apply a different approach to them, saving us time, money, and relational capital along the way.

Adaptive challenges begin with unclear problem definitions, and their solutions require the leader and the organization to learn something new. By virtue of that, the application of our expertise won't work. Therefore, in most cases, the authority we have that derives from that expertise does not give us the leverage to make something happen that it otherwise would. Therefore, the bulk of the work doesn't come from the expert applying expertise, but from all involved (the stakeholders - which could include staff, vendors, and clients/customers/members/beneficiaries) finding ways to engage with and wrestle through the challenges.

Significant organizational change is almost always adaptive; adaptive change does not always show up as significant organizational change. In other words, if an organization needs to change its culture, its way of operating, or has experienced a major stuck point, it is likely that these are adaptive changes. On the other hand, adaptive challenges can appear in small ways on a daily basis. The cumulative effect of these may be significant organizational change, but that's not how they first appear. So many of us do, in fact, deal with adaptive change more than we think we do.

So why is identifying what type of change we are experiencing so important?

We have seen several reasons why identifying what type of change we are in is important.

  1. Adaptive change shows up a lot more than we might expect, and not usually in dramatic ways.
  2. Adaptive challenges require a significantly different approach to resolve them than technical challenges do.
  3. We are primed to solve things technically by our training and expertise - even when our training and expertise do not apply.
  4. Taking a technical approach when the challenge is really adaptive can waste time, energy, and money, and hurt relationships. In fact, it can make the challenge worse.

Where have you seen the importance of identifying what type of change you are in?

Let me know. 

Matthew M. Thomas

Matthew M. Thomas, EPC, is the President of the L M Thomas Group.

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[email protected]

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[email protected]