Adapt to Adaptive Change

Rooted in Theory

One of the most successful of modern leadership theories is the Theory of Adaptive Leadership, given to us by Ronald Heifetz initially in 1994 in his book Leadership Without Easy Answers. Since 1994, Heifetz published several articles and wrote a few more books, his work on Adaptive Leadership really culminating, in my opinion, with his 2009 book called The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World.  I especially like the 2009 book because it is all about practical application, which is actually kind of rare within the realm of scholarship. Don’t get me started!

I’ll warn you, though, that the books mentioned here are not “airport readers.” These are rather scientific texts that are not quick and easy to read.  There’s nothing wrong with books that are quick and easy, but there are so many of them out there that merely discuss a particular author’s perspective without ever referencing any scientific works, which at least seems incomplete, if not totally misleading in some cases. That’s why I wanted to show that this particular concept is rooted in leadership and change theory.

Technical vs. Adaptive Challenges

A technical challenge is one in which learning is required and old processes and beliefs are sufficient to bring about the necessary change for a person to rise to the challenge. Technical challenges will typically have some relation to an existing state, which will vary from person to person, so it’s hard to give a universal example of a technical challenge.  If you’re a computer programmer, for example, learning a new coding language will probably be a technical challenge.  You can draw on previous experience with learning to code that will help you to learn the new language.  You have all the tools you need to learn, so you just go on your merry way and learn.

If you’re not a computer programmer, however, and you try to learn to code for the very first time, you may have a much different experience.  I’m sure you could guess at this point that an adaptive challenge is one in which learning is required and old processes and beliefs are NOT sufficient to bring about the necessary change.  A deeper form of change is required with adaptive challenges.  Following our software example, if you’ve never coded before and you give it a shot, you may get frustrated and exclaim “This shouldn’t be so hard! Computers should just work for crying out loud!” A lot of effort is put forth to make computer programs user-friendly because that’s what users want.  This exclamation demonstrates a user mindset but not a programmer mindset.  You see, this is an adaptive challenge because it’s the mindset that really needs to change, not just the technical ability. 

I’m saying it now, this is exactly why so many change efforts fail.  We try to prescribe technical solutions to adaptive problems. This happens a lot in the corporate world because one-off training programs are relatively easy to achieve; leaders are looking for the easiest way to solve a problem, which is reasonable and logical, albeit misguided in a lot of cases.  In our personal lives, we do the same thing.  We’re always looking for a new diet plan that will shrink our waistline as quickly as possible, or we’re looking for that one new skill that will land us that six-figure income, or myriad other possibilities.

Simply knowing that a particular change is in your best interest – that you SHOULD change – is not strong enough to change a mindset.  That’s why the vast majority of New Year’s Resolutions fail. That’s why we continue smoking cigarettes and eating cheeseburgers even when doctors tell us to knock it off! Logically, we get it. But emotionally, adaptively, we are often wildly unprepared for change. 

So how do we get prepared?

Adapt to Adaptive Thinking

I suspect this answer is going to seem a bit unsatisfactory, but stick with me here; I can explain.  The secret to successfully working through adaptive challenges is recognizing that they are adaptive challenges. It’s going to take some real work and you have to understand this so you won’t be disappointed when thing don’t quite go your way right out of the gate.  Maybe this isn’t all that disappointing to hear because, in a manner of thinking, this entire blog is devoted to dealing with adaptive change.  I mean, you don’t need to read a blog about how to tie your shoes…you just freaking learn how to do it! (My apologies to my 5-year-old readers; you guys are very appropriately meeting your challenges and I’m proud of you!) Adaptive change isn’t like that; there’s no magic potion and you can’t just watch a 4-minute video online and expect great success.  First you recognize what you’re up against and then you continue chipping away at your worldviews, mindsets, paradigms, and limiting beliefs by following evidence-based, scientifically-sound practices that are and will continue to be found in this blog and many other resources.

Once your mental self is in the right place; your emotional self can come into the right place to allow the change that you seek.  But it will likely be a journey.  It’s the personal development journey, and like I said, that’s what this blog is all about.

Follow Me
Latest posts by Michael G. Sullivan (see all)

1 thought on “Adapt to Adaptive Change

Leave a Reply