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Have you taken the road less travelled? An introduction to Adaptive Leadership

Aditya was feeling frustrated. He had joined as CEO of a medium-sized Indian organisation about 4 months ago; he had spent more than 15 years in an MNC environment before that. Aditya, in his current team, had senior functional managers reporting to him from Marketing, Finance, Sales and Logistics, who had been with the organisation for a long time. A couple of weeks after joining, he had set up a formal introduction session with his direct reports wherein he had told them about his style of functioning. He said he believed in open communication and expected his team to speak up openly if they disagreed or needed clarifications. He believed the team would be far more effective if issues were brought to the table quickly and openly, so they could be addressed immediately. He had also sent out an email detailing out guidelines on the way of working. However, Aditya found that while his team largely kept silent in meetings, they didn’t always act on what was decided. Just today he found that a critical change initiative which had to be implemented was not kicked off as some members of his team were not in agreement. He had found this out only accidentally. Aditya was upset – he had clearly communicated his way of working to his team, he had sent out “way of working” guidelines via email, and yet …

Why were they doing this? Were they scared of him or didn’t they believe him when he said he welcomed differences? Aditya had implemented what had worked well in his previous career stints but it was obviously not working here.

What should he do? Should he send out another email or state his expectations again more strongly this time?
This was an important leadership challenge for Aditya that was coming in way of meeting his goals and ambition. What do you think was happening here?
Aditya was facing what is called an Adaptive Leadership Challenge. Adaptive vs Technical Leadership Adaptive Leadership emerged from thirty plus years of research at Harvard University by Dr. Ron Heifetz and Marty Linksy, defining the frontier of leadership training and development. It can simply be defined as, ‘knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do’, Confusing? Read on … Adaptive leadership is required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values & lessons that made us successful become less relevant and less effective. We see adaptive challenges every day at every level of the workplace. They occur when companies restructure, implement new strategy or bring about major changes to their culture & ways of working. Here people who are impacted must be deeply involved. Solutions cannot be implemented by authority. There are no quick fixes, they can take time to implement. Leader needs a different set of competencies. Contrasting to this is a ‘technical challenge’, where nature of the problem is known and so is the solution. What is required is getting the job done. Technical problems can be extremely complex and difficult, but the problem is known and there is a solution that can be deployed. Technical challenges can be solved by expertise & experience; they can be implemented quickly using principles, tools and techniques that have worked in the past. An example of a technical challenge: When Aditya joined he found a lot of customer calls were going unattended and there was no data available on customer issues. Aditya had quickly set up a centralised call centre and had implemented a tool to track and analyse call flows. In this case, the problem was clearly known and so was the solution. This was a perfect example of a technical challenge.

Now the key question is: How do you know when a challenge is Technical or Adaptive?
Today leaders are increasingly experiencing adaptive challenges as they lead in a context of rapid change and complexity. The temptation is to attempt to ‘solve’ an adaptive challenge by looking for a technical solution. In a sense this is our default setting. We are good at technical solutions. In our career path to leadership positions, we have largely faced and addressed challenges successfully which are technical. Certainty, speed and past success provide us reassurance & confidence therefore we turn to such practices even when encountering the unknown, unfamiliar and uncertain. However, by engaging the technical solution in the face of what is an adaptive challenge, usually only makes matters worse.

Ronald Heifetz says “the single biggest failure of leadership is to treat adaptive challenges like technical problems”
In our case study, Aditya seemed to be exactly doing this. Faced by an adaptive challenge which called for a change in values and beliefs of his team and himself and complete involvement of his team, he was using a technical solution. He set ground rules and sent out guidelines hoping for a
quick change in attitudes and style. But that was not working. What he needed was an Adaptive solution!

Here are a few ways to differentiate between technical and adaptive challenges : (Table 1)
Examples of Adaptive Challenges in day today life:
Is diagnosis of chronic hypertension a technical challenge or adaptive? While some of us would like to believe it calls for a technical solution which involves taking medication prescribed by the Doctor, would it give sustained long-term health?

When we look deeper we find this is really an adaptive challenge, calling for us to relook at our fundamental lifestyle beliefs and choices, making changes can be painful & difficult which need resilience and strength. However only taking that path will give us sustained long term health and

Adaptive Leadership Principles
Having identified an adaptive challenge, how do we make it work? Ronald Heifetz has put forth some principles that drive Adaptive Leadership practice. Adaptive leadership requires a leader to learn some fundamentally different competencies & skills
1. Get on the Balcony
2. Identify the Leadership Challenge
3. Create the “holding” environment
4. Protect the voices from below

Balcony and Dance Floor
Being “in the dance” means being present in the day-to-day interactions with people and getting involved. “ Getting on the balcony” means stepping back, gaining perspective and looking for the bigger picture of how success can be achieved.

We spend a lot of our working life “dancing” –when we participate in business reviews, interact with customers and colleagues and deal with dozens of emails /phone calls. How good are we at creating “balcony time” – able to regularly take stock of how you are progressing, as a leader or
as a team member? Do we spend more time on the dance floor than in the balcony? Effective leadership is about being both on the balcony AND in the dance.

Adaptive challenge invites leaders into the “balcony “
An adaptive challenge invites the leader onto the ‘balcony’ and off the dance floor. All too often leaders remain on the dance floor as this is where their comfort zone is – this is what they do better than others. The problem is that from the dance floor, one cannot see. emerging patterns and take in the big picture. Being on the balcony is how leaders can best see what is required to adapt to a changing environment. Aditya when faced with this challenge was busy sending emails, reacting – he was on the dance floor. He needed to get off it and into the balcony from where he could see the big picture and emerging patterns – what was the culture of the company, what kind of leadership style where they used to, how were issues handled in the past, how could change be brought in his own style as well as his team members?

Identify the leadership Challenge
It is critical to identify the challenge in its correct perspective. First set out to diagnose the organisation’s challenges in more detail. Does it represent a technical challenge or an adaptive challenge? Would expert advice and technical adjustments within basic guidelines sufce, or would people throughout the company have to learn different ways of doing business, develop new competencies, and begin to work collectively? Who
needs to be involved?

Aditya needs to identify the challenge, what exactly needs to be worked on – beliefs and competencies of his team or his own approach or both?

Create the holding environment
Adaptive work generates discomfort and some tensions. Before putting people to work on challenges for which there are no ready solutions, a leader must realise that people can get overwhelmed. A leader must strike a delicate balance between having people feel the need to change and having them feel overwhelmed by change. A leader must have the emotional capacity to tolerate uncertainty and frustration. Most often, people expect leaders to meet organisational challenges for which they themselves are responsible. People tend to become passive and leaders who pride themselves on being problem
solvers take decisive action. Getting people to assume greater responsibility is not easy. Letting people take the initiative in denying and solving problems means that management needs to learn to support rather than control.

Different people within the same organisation bring different experiences, values and beliefs. This diversity is valuable because innovation and learning are the products of differences. Leaders must address their competing perspectives collectively.

Aditya needs to let go of control and support his team as they speak up, take initiative and voice different perspectives and ideas.

Protect the voices of Leadership
Giving a voice to all people is the foundation of an organisation that is willing to experiment and learn. It is often very tough for employees at lower levels of the organisation to speak up and voice their ideas or concerns or thoughts. It is vital for an adaptive leader to listen to these voices and leverage them. Aditya must recognize that his team may not open to him immediately, it is important that he protects their voice and creates an environment of trust and respect.

In conclusion:
What is the biggest challenge that you are facing today? Is it Technical or Adaptive? How often have you been in the ‘balcony’ stepping back from action to figure out patterns and come up with creative alternatives? Have you involved your team deeply and let go control? Have you heard different voices from across the organization?
Adaptive Leadership is not easy, it’s “Leadership without Easy Answers “and that is the leadership we need in today’s world of rapid change and complexity.

Sources :
Leadership without Easy answers, Ronald Heifetz
The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, Ronald Heiftez & Marty Linsky
The Work of Leadership, Harvard Business Review Ronald Heifetz &Donald L. Laurie


Comments (1)

Excellent share Padmaja. It has helped me a lot in many ways.

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