The Adaptive Project Manager Skills Series: Understanding Adaptive Problems

26 May

One, if not the, most powerful skill adaptive leaders have is diagnosis. In fact, in "The Practice of Adaptive Leadership," Ronald Heifetz et al. says: "The single most important skill and most undervalued capacity for exercising adaptive leadership is diagnosis." Why?

Guiding resources to or seeking solutions for the wrong problem will not get any closer to actually "fixing" it. In fact, chasing wrong answers may exacerbate what's wrong in the first place. An accurate diagnosis helps mitigate that risk. Suppress the urge to jump into upfront solutioning; start first by realising any successful diagnosis includes determining exactly what type of problem is in front of you.

The reason why problem type is so significant is that even if the correct cause of the problem is identified, success can be delayed or unreachable by attempting the solve the problem with the wrong approach. Again, it shouldn't be hard to accept that different problems need different approaches. Being adaptive means recognising which type requires which approach and acting accordingly.

Adaptive leaders broadly classify problems into two types: adaptive and technical. While complex problems may contain a mix of types and require a combination of approaches to reach a successful outcome, most fall into one or the other of these types. The chart below summarises the 6 key attributes belonging to each problem type:


*Adapted from "The Work of Leadership", Heifetz and Laurie


The chart below shows how problems and issues can have both technical and adaptive solutions. Ask yourself which solution addresses the root of the problem and would lead to a more "permanent" fix.


After all, that is the goal – an outcome that addresses the issue such that it does not re-occur. That's why adaptive leaders know it's critically important to be able to identify the type of issue in front of them, so a winning strategy based on that knowledge can be formulated.


Posted by Cris Casey.

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