If you are not willing to accept casualties, then you are not ready to lead adaptive challenges

13 November

The biggest challenges today are adaptive ones, those in which the various stakeholders, including the leader, must face without a blueprint. To find a solution requires learning, and to learn requires overturning ossified forms of thinking and acting. Vested interests, established hierarchies and legacy expertise have to disintegrate before new knowledge and ways of working can emerge. People who derive power, benefit or comfort from the old ways will tenaciously cling to them — those who have something to lose will always resist, it's a survival instinct. It is the leader's job to deliberately disappoint these people so that the system can evolve. Leaders who try to please everyone can not lead adaptive challenges because to please everyone is to fortify the status quo.


Technical vs adaptive challenges

Not all challenges are adaptive, some are technical, while others are a blend. A broken printing press is a technical challenge. The machinery is well documented and understood. As soon as the press stops working, the plant manager calls for an engineer and defers to his or her technical authority for the solution. However, when the internet took off, the presses stopped for an entirely non-technical reason. The hitherto stable market in which the newspapers were operating started evolving. New websites suddenly popped up and disrupted the 'rivers of gold', the classified ads, that newspapers relied on. Newspaper revenues fell off a cliff. There was no authority to turn to who could diagnose the problem and prescribe a solution because there had never been an internet. Newspaper executives had to navigate these new waters without a chart. They had to learn what was happening in the market, in real time, and adapt to it — an adaptive challenge to a Schumpeterian moment

When challenges arise, people naturally look to leaders for direction, protection and order. But if a leader approaches an adaptive challenge with a technical mindset they will fail. A technical approach is incompatible with an adaptive challenge. One can not apply technical expertise to a problem that has not occurred before. One has to learn about the problem first, and then try to find a solution for it. How does one do this?


Activating collective intelligence

Heifetz and Laurie propose that:

“solutions to adaptive challenges reside not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence of employees at all levels.”

Following is a basic outline of an adaptive leadership approach.

1. Push the work to stakeholders

When dealing with adaptive challenges, it is not the job of the leader to provide a nice neat problem definition and solution, but to identify the adaptive challenge, to frame key questions and issues, and to push the work to the employees and stakeholders. This attitude is masterfully portrayed by Ed Harris who played NASA Flight Control Director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13. In scene after scene Kranz (Harris) frames the issues and mobilizes the team to tackle a train of seemingly impossible problems under the central motive that "failure is not an option". The team did not defer to the leader for answers but solved the problems together under their leader's exacting orchestration. 


2. Withhold protection

In adaptive challenges, counter-instinctively, it is not the leader's role to protect employees from external threats. Their role instead is to disclose the threats. There was no way that all newspaper employees were going to survive the onslaught of the internet, just as there is no way many jobs of today are going to survive the onslaught of automation. Leaders can not protect everyone from change. To try and do so is to increase the fragility of the organisation. But leaders can herald change, they can raise the alarm and put their organisation, and their people, on the front foot.


3. Allow conflict

Adaptive challenges require new thinking and new ways of acting, they require people to overcome cognitive and structural limitations and to seek out and experiment with new and potentially uncomfortable ideas. Order and norms are thus the enemy of adaptive challenges. Therefore it is the leader's job to deliberately disorient people, to expose conflict or to let it emerge, to challenge norms or allow them to be challenged, and to maintain a state of disequilibrium for as long as necessary for solutions to emerge. This is the diametric opposite of technical leadership where the imperative is to restore order and maintain norms. 


4. Provoke perturb

To create the necessary disequilibrium that will yield change requires a particular bravery. The leader has to expose taboo subjects, call out the elephants in the room and perturb the status quo. An adaptive leader must be willing to provoke their people, at a rate most can bear, to make progress on an adaptive challenge. Once an issue is mobilised the leader has little control over its direction, so they must also be willing to embrace the uncertainty and vulnerability that comes with volatility.


5. Accept casualties

In many cases, during the process of facing an adaptive challenge, there will be casualties. Those who derive security from their expertise will feel vulnerable as knowledge requirements shift. Those who obtain a sense of self-worth through their position or title will feel precarious when old structures start to quake. Those who have spent a lifetime developing certain skills will feel tremendously anxious if those skills are being made redundant. Those who cherish certain ideas and beliefs will feel angry when emergent ideas and beliefs diverge with theirs. All those who enjoy some sense of authority will be unhappy when the locus of authority, the attention, moves away from them.

While the adaptive leader can, and should, orchestrate disequilibrium with kindness and empathy, and be ready to support those who are going to be affected, they can not attempt to hold back chaotic forces, for that would deny the opportunity for adaption. Adaption is necessarily stressful and difficult. It takes perturbation and creative destruction to overcome hard-baked norms and unlock the wellsprings of innovation. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb eloquently puts it:

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.”

Accepting casualties is part and parcel of adaptive leadership. If a leader does not have the stomach for it or is not willing to develop the stomach for it, then they are not equipped to lead the big challenges ahead.


Post by John Dobbin