Like many teachers in their first year, I faced a lot of classroom management challenges: students talking out in class, not following directions, walking out of class without permission, and even fighting. What was my solution? I pulled from a huge toolkit of classroom management strategies. I changed seating arrangements, created new rewards systems, called parents, reviewed rules and consequences, and narrated behavior. Each of those strategies were useful and had some positive effect, but the impact always dwindled over time. I had to continue to drum up new strategies every couple of weeks in order to keep up with the challenges my students were throwing at me.
I was making a mistake that confounds many leaders – I was approaching an adaptive challenge with technical solutions. In The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (2009) by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky, the authors make a clear distinction between adaptive and technical challenges. They write:
While technical problems may be very complex and critically important, they have known solutions that can be implemented by current know-how. They can be resolved through the application of authoritative expertise and through the organization’s current structures, procedures and ways of doing things. Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses and generating the new capacity to thrive anew.
How can you tell whether you’re dealing with a technical or an adaptive challenge? Technical challenges have clearly defined problems and solutions that work when applied effectively. If you’re a teacher and are never getting through your lessons, you (or an observer) might identify that you’re taking too long with your introduction to new material. Your solution is to tighten up your introduction and allocate more time to student practice. In the world of medicine a doctor may determine that a patient needs a new heart valve in order to fix a cardiovascular issue. The doctor performs surgery to replace the valve and the problem is solved.
On the other hand, adaptive challenges require significant learning, reflection and investigation in order to understand both the problem and the solution (or set of solutions). Think back to the classroom management challenge I described above – while I oftentimes thought there was a clear problem (e.g. my seating chart is not separating students who tend to talk to each other during class) and a clear solution (e.g. make a new seating chart), both the problem and the solution were much more complicated. I was addressing issues that were at the “tip of the iceberg,” but there was deeper work to be done to change my own mindsets and mental models – as well as those of my students – in order to more effectively manage my classroom. Changing mindsets and mental models is at the heart of adaptive leadership work.
There is a simple question you can ask yourself when you’ve been working on a challenge for an extended period of time: has the approach (or the approaches) you’ve tried in the past actually made a measurable and sustainable improvement? Consider a company that is struggling to build stronger organizational culture. Over the course of 5 years, smart and capable leaders try dozens of different approaches to improve culture – moving to a newer office space, launching employee happy hours, writing new slogans (with t-shirts), and orchestrating employee training days. But over time, nothing really changes and the benefits of each approach are temporary. The issue is not that the strategies were implemented poorly (or that they weren’t well-intentioned). It’s that they weren’t actually addressing the incredibly complex and deep-rooted issues that were impacting culture – the mindsets and mental models (and after that, the systems and actions that demonstrate change). The leaders were addressing an adaptive challenge with technical solutions.
It’s important to note here that many challenges are a mix of both technical and adaptive. For example, the challenge of two school districts merging together involves many technical challenges (integrating computer software) as well as adaptive challenges (staff coping with change, assimilating to a new culture, creating a new identity, etc.). Ignoring either of those challenges will lead to trouble, but ignoring the adaptive challenge is much easier and more common because it’s so much harder.
So what did I ultimately do about my adaptive classroom management challenge as a first year teacher? I’ll write more about that and discuss approaches for tackling adaptive challenges next month. For now, I encourage you to take stock of your toughest challenges to see where you might need to exert adaptive leadership in order to create the change you desire.
If you’d like to learn more about adaptive leadership, check out part two of this post called Leveraging Adaptive Leadership to Solve Our Toughest Problems.