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The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World

Ronald A. Heifetz, Marty Linsky, Alexander Grashow

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership is a dense yet practical consolidation of Heifetz and Linsky’s thinking on leadership in a complex world. It provides tools and approaches, some more practical than others, for individuals working to create change in their organization or community. They argue that as our world becomes increasingly difficult to understand and interpret, organizations need to build the capabilities to manage problems that are difficult to identify and don’t have a clear solution (adaptive challenges, in other words).

In this environment, effective leadership is about shining a light on these challenges and helping individuals and organizations navigate them – or stay in the productive zone of disequilibrium, where organizational change happens.

According to Heifetz, Linksy, and Grashow, the differences between a technical adaptive challenge relate to how a problem and solution are identified. In an adaptive situation, leadership identifies the challenge and frames the questions and issues. A technical challenge, instead, has a clear problem definition and solution articulated by the leadership group. Technical challenges are managed by supporting and protecting individuals as they move through a change process. In an adaptive situation, leadership is about creating a holding environment where the challenges are discussed; people identify the threats and conflicts that occur as the problem and solution are defined and refined.

Adaptive versus Technical Problem

Adaptive versus technical problem

For Heifetz, Linsky, and Grashow, managing these adaptive challenges is at the heart of creating more resilient and effective organizations capable of operating in the 21st century. Having recognized the nature of the adaptive challenge, the next step is to create an environment for managing adaptive change. The authors provide a three-part framework: observe – interpret – intervene.

  1. Observe: Adaptive challenges do not have an obvious answer, and defining the problem is contentious.

  2. Interpret: “What’s going on here?”

  3. Intervene: Choose how you will intervene, resist the urge to leap to action – reflect and understand; patience to still the hand.

Observe – understanding the leadership adaptive challenge.

Taking on this change process requires recognizing that “every organization is not only one overall system but also a set of subsystems…structures (for example, incentive programs), culture (including norms and meeting protocols), and defaults routine process of problem-solving and ways of thinking and acting). These subsystems powerfully shape how people respond to and deal with adaptive pressures” (Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky, 2009, p.54). It is up to the leadership group to identify challenges, diagnose this system, and then frame the questions that will enable an exploration of the challenge and external/internal threats. The authors provide two useful frameworks to help diagnose the organizational system. The first is based on the structures, culture, and routines of the organization, as follows:

Structures, culture and routines

Structures, culture, and routines to diagnose adaptive challenges

When answering these questions, recognize that identifying the adaptative challenge can be difficult. You need to understand what is happening and pay attention to what is unsaid or unspoken.

Recognizing the adaptive problem

Recognizing the adaptive problem

Interpret what the adaptive challenge means for your organization.

“In leading adaptive change, broaden your focus beyond just the people in the room, the players most directly involved. Take into account the people outside the room about whom the players care. And consider how you might help each stakeholder in the room to engage their constituencies outside the room in the questions and solutions you are exploring at the table.” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009, p.94) As you develop meaning, you need to think about the wider environment around you – the politics, capabilities, and recognition of the problem.

Politics: These are the internal and external factors that influence how individuals and groups will respond. Questions that you should ask yourself in managing the intervention are: Who does this change impact the groups? What are the losses that different groups might face? Who has control over aspects of this change? Are there hidden alliances?

Capabilities: What capability do you need to build within the system to make the change lasting? Organizations that manage adaptive change effectively can talk about the elephants in the room (no issue is too sensitive). Responsibility for the organization's future is shared (people ask how their work impacts the organization). Independent judgment is expected and encouraged. There is a robust process of reflection and learning.

Focus on the problem: Understand where your organization is in relation to the problem you are facing. How comfortable are individuals with confrontation? Who defers to whom in moments of conflict and tension?

Intervene in the organization to create change.

Managing a problem or change adaptively will build capability in the organization. It becomes a way of working rather than a process to be managed. Adaptive change requires a search for the problem and the solution, which means building the organizational capability to focus on the problems and name them. One idea for creating the conditions of explorational is to “…start every meeting with a new practice that you have not used before that encourages people to learn from and adapt to change. Here are some suggestions: Have everyone meditate for one minute. Solicit the most important lesson of the week. Ask people to spend more time discussing an idea that demands more attention. Cite a mistake from which others can learn...whatever practice you decide to try…at the end of each session and the end of the month, ask people what they thought of the practice and its advantages and disadvantages...” (Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, 2009, p.62)

Successfully intervening to create change in an organization requires focusing on the problem, which means keeping a level of conflict and discomfort up. According to Heifetz, Linsky, and Grashow, your interventions must regulate the temperature to stay in the zone of disequilibrium (as the following table highlights). At the same time, your job is to reframe the default interpretation of why the organization is stuck. Name the default and challenge your team or colleagues to develop multiple views on what might be true. Don’t assume the current view is just correct.

Regulating the temperature

Regulating the temperature for an adaptive problem

Design effective interventions based on multiple views of what is happening. To intervene effectively, you need to increase the urgency within the system, what the authors call (ripeness). Ask yourself, are “people avoiding the issue, or is there a lack of urgency?”. How will you frame the questions, problem, and challenge? This is about helping the group understand the intervention and what you have in mind. Once you do intervene, the authors encourage you not to chase the intervention. Don’t chase your idea. It's not yours. Don’t become wedded to it. Let it percolate within the system. You need to let it move through the system in its own time. Be silent. That is a form of intervention. Keep listening and be present – do not withdraw.

Intervening to create change in a system is difficult. The authors would go as far as to say that it is uncomfortable and requires individual resilience. And yet, creating change in a complex, adaptive world is critical to addressing the most pressing and challenging issues of our time. Leading adaptive change might be hard, but it is worth it when it makes a lasting difference. The authors conclude with four points of advice: Stay in tough conversations – build a stomach – adaptive change is difficult and uncomfortable; remain patient and work on managing through silence – less talking and more listening; remember silence and authority go hand in hand; and remember you have a role and who you are – don’t let these two overlap.


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