How does strategy influence adaptive leadership?

26 January

In business, “strategy” most often aligns with the secondary definitions Merriam-Webster offers: “a careful plan or method” or “the art of devising or employing plans or stratagems toward a goal”. The operative word here is “plan”. In simple terms, strategy is about making plans and carrying them out. And you could easily say a big part of Adaptive Leadership is about turning strategy into reality.

So if strategy is the thoughtful assembly of actions to take with the hope of influencing what will happen in the future, shouldn’t the adaptive leader just devise and then follow a strategy to get to the goal? We all know the answer to that. The old Yiddish proverb “Mann traoch, Gott Lauch” translated to “Man plans; God laughs” highlights the fact that while some strategies in their original forms may be successful, the majority are not.

An adaptive leader realises that while strategies can be useful snapshots in time to guide people toward a goal, they are seldom accurate and often dangerously static. We’ve all been in situations where a plan developed from an ill-conceived strategy crashes and burns despite everyone’s best efforts to make it work. That’s why adaptive leaders view strategies not as fixed tasks set in stone, but as malleable and dynamic communication instruments.  

Does this mean that developing and following strategies shouldn’t be done? The argument behind this idea is if things are going to change anyway, why bother. Adaptive leaders reject this premise and instead say that it’s not the creation and execution of a strategy that’s the problem. The problem is when strategies are not scrutinised and changed to adapt to changing circumstances or conditions.

In keeping with one of an adaptive leadership’s foundational concepts, that progress is made through experimentation, a strategy is not just a plan, but a springboard to launch experiments to validate or disprove that it’s working. The experiments reveal what works and what doesn’t. Things that don’t work are stopped (or shed; an application of the adaptive leadership concept of loss), while those that do work are kept or amplified. And the strategy is adjusted to accommodate the findings.

So the question “how does strategy influence adaptive leadership” is best answered by saying that it doesn’t.  In fact it is just the opposite: strategy is influenced by the adaptive leader. Adaptive leaders know that successful strategies should be in a perpetual state of change.  They continually test, adapt and often abandoned strategies or their component parts if they are not provably moving the initiative toward the goal.

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