Leaders' Edge Advisor

Technical and Adaptive Leadership Challenges

By Gary De Carolis, President, Center for Community Leadership

Technical Challenges and Adaptive Challenges

In their ground-breaking writing on leadership, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky address the issue of technical versus adaptive leadership challenges, and the problems that arise when we confuse the two. Leaders need to identify if a change they are introducing requires primarily technical expertise, or represents a deeper, adaptive challenge.

A technical challenge occurs when there is a clear piece of information that needs to be learned. Technical challenges can be mastered by offering the opportunity for that learning to happen. For example, staff is trained on how to use the new Microsoft Windows 7 program. Technical challenges are task-oriented.

An adaptive challenge requires a shift in people's values, practices and perhaps relationships from the current status. An example of an adaptive challenge might be an agency in which staff are accustomed to working alone is now being asked to work in a collaborative manner with other child-serving agencies. The staff's practice style is being challenged as well as perhaps some of their values regarding how they work. Adaptive challenges are process-oriented.

Technical and Adaptive Challenges are two forms of system change that require vastly different responses. Leaders are confronted with both types of challenges. The key to success is to correctly identify which type of challenge leaders are facing and then proceed to orchestrate the change based on whether the type of change they are facing is a technical or an adaptive challenge.

A common mistake that leaders make is when they misread the challenge in front of them. Since training appears to be a quick fix to a problem, leaders will often offer training for an adaptive challenge that requires much more than a one-time infusion of expertise.

For example, an agency hires a nationally known consultant to train up all child welfare caseworkers on family group decision-making. The expectation is that by offering this training the agency will move to family group decision-making as the preferred way of developing a case plan and involving families in the process. Having arranged for the training to be delivered, the leader feels like she can now take this issue off her plate.

How disappointed she is to find that a month later the caseworkers are still developing case plans the same way they were before the training! Why? This was not a technical challenge, but rather was an adaptive challenge. Deeply held beliefs of the case workers needed to be brought forward and discussed, ranging from how they perceive their role with parents, their skills in developing plans on their own, their frustrations with too little time to do new activities and more. An adaptive challenge is much more process oriented and the leader needs to create the safe place and time to engage in that process. No training will be able to take the place of that kind of work; in the end, the time and money spent on training for an adaptive challenge is often money misspent.

Do you see the difference between an adaptive and a technical challenge?

Can you identify both types of challenges in your work?

Have you been able to create the time and space to address the adaptive challenges in your organization/community?

The two books mentioned in the above quotes are wonderful resources to better understand system change of both a technical and adaptive type.

Please share your thoughts with:

Gary De Carolis, President
The Center for Community Leadership
Email: gary@centerforcommunityleadership.com

The Leaders' Edge Advisor is an occasional publication for leaders striving to make a difference in their organizations and communities.

The Center for Community Leadership provides personalized, dynamic leadership training. Our diverse faculty, all with years of hands-on experience leading system change, facilitates three-day Community Leadership Institutes and shorter workshops across the country.

Participants learn current leadership theory and practices, gain new perspectives on their leadership styles and strengths, and identify and work on their own leadership challenge. We can also bring Community Leadership Institutes to your community, tailored to your needs. Call 802-863-9132 or email Gary De Carolis, President, Center for Community Leadership, for price quotes and other details.

Upcoming Leadership Seminars

The Center is offering an exciting series of 8 one-day leadership seminars at Disney World, Orlando, Florida on Thursday, June 17 & Monday, June 21 in partnership with the Family Café, Inc. For more information and to register for the seminars, go to the Family Café website and scroll down the page.

Center for Community Leadership · P.O. Box 3069, Burlington, VT 05408-3069
ph: 802-863-9132 fax: 802-863-6586 · info@centerforcommunityleadership.com

Copyright 2005 Gary De Carolis. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author.

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