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Ordinary Leadership Week Notes: Getting to grips with technical and adaptive leadership challenges

Weeknote: 26.06.23


What leadership themes stood out this week

“Efficiency is doing things right; effectiveness is doing the right things” – Peter Drucker. In a strange way, I’ve kept coming back to two leadership themes this week. The first is the question of efficiency versus effectiveness. The idea is that we can become more and more efficient; sometimes, efficiency is the opposite of effectiveness.

Linked to this is understanding individually what effectiveness means. I like the graphic below from Success Factor Modelling, which draws out the importance of purpose in understanding what makes us effective. I can maximise efficiency by focusing on the individual elements of the framework, but I can only be effective if I bring them all together – which is unlikely to be an extremely efficient process. In other words, we’re only ever effective when we’re clear about where we’re going – and when we can let go of the need to try and be efficient. I’m still working on this last point.

Three interesting ideas/quotes from the week


An oldie but a goodie, the difference between complex and complicated tasks. The world is increasingly full of complex tasks, yet we have set our systems up to deal with complicated ones. It’s a point that Gen. Stanley McCrystal makes it in Team of Teams. Complicated takes have many parts, but those parts are joined, one to the next, in relatively simple ways. Complicated tasks are like an engine; they can be broken down into a series of tidy relationships. You can then predict the outcome.


Complex tasks occur when the number of interactions increases significantly. It becomes impossible to predict what will happen. Gen. McCrystal notes, “…our actions were the product of our planning, and our planning was predicated on our ability to predict. (Or more precisely, our perception of our ability to predict...).” In short, we’ve been focused on creating more and more efficient organisations and systems, assuming we can break all our tasks down, but what happens when we no longer can? I’m starting to wonder if it's time for a different frame of reference.


The distinction between technical and adaptive problems has come up this week. Technical problems usually have a clear solution and can be solved by getting smart people in a room. Adaptive problems usually require changes in values and behaviours. It’s a concept I first came across in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, and it has subsequently come up reasonably regularly. This past week it has been on my mind as I think about how you use the distinction to help people think through the challenge their facing and calibrate how they want to design their response.


Helpful leadership links from the week

What’s your elevator pitch for leadership? I liked this podcast for its focus on understanding who and what you want to be in leadership. It's worth a listen. This older HBR article also gives an interesting insight into what a good elevator pitch might look like.


United Break’s Guitars. I remember the first time I was introduced to this clip. It's excellent; it really emphasises the idea that we now work and live in dynamic environments, a world of many to many, increasing the complexity significantly. We can’t ignore the reality of what others do, and companies need to be more attuned to their customers – I often wonder what this would look like for the public sector.


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