Think about a major professional challenge you’ve faced – how did you respond? Maybe you froze up, paralyzed by the breadth and depth of the issue. Maybe you chose to ignore it. Or, more commonly, you might have reached for one or more strategies that made you feel better in the moment – and perhaps alleviated the immediate severity of the challenge at hand – but did not actually solve the problem in the long run. We’ve all been there before. It’s what happens when we approach complex, adaptive challenges with technical solutions.
The first step in avoiding this mistake is being able to accurately diagnose your challenges. Last month I shared strategies for diagnosing adaptive and technical leadership challenges, and referenced a helpful passage from Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky’s The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (2009):
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.
I also shared some reflections on my first year of teaching and how I made the common mistake of leveraging technical solutions to address the adaptive challenges of classroom management. In the face of these challenges, I constantly reached for new strategies that temporarily alleviated – but did not solve – my classroom management issues. I only made real progress when I came to fully realize that strong classroom management and culture is about more than just good, well-executed strategies. It is really about accessing and shifting mindsets, mental models, beliefs and habits – the core of adaptive leadership.
Once you’ve identified an adaptive challenge, what’s next? Here are some key strategies to consider:
“Get on the balcony”
Oftentimes our first instinct in the face of a challenge is to rush to action. In actuality, it is important to step outside of the day-to-day and “rise above the noise” in order to truly understand the root causes of the challenge at hand and the systems in place that are impacting the challenge. How is the existing culture sustaining and/or contributing to the issue? What do other key stakeholders think about the challenge? What are the forces at play that could both help and hinder change? Gathering insight on these questions takes time, purposeful engagement and a broad view. As a teacher, I had to “get on the balcony” to see that the real root causes of my management issues centered on building trusting relationships with my students, investing them in their goals, and engaging them with meaningful content.
Bring together the right people
Adaptive leadership is all about people, and effectively addressing adaptive challenges may require you to go beyond the “usual suspects” who are typically brought together to solve problems. What are the political dynamics of the challenge and of the organization/system in which you’re operating? What does that suggest about how you need to leverage relationships through the challenge? You need to identify your allies, manage voices of dissent, and move along those in between. As a teacher, this meant reaching out to my colleagues for support, talking with parents to better understand my students’ unique needs, and engaging with my students directly to build trust and to better understand their experience in my classroom.
Manage the Change Process
Once you’ve made the diagnosis, built a deep understanding of the challenge, and brought together the right people, adaptive leadership is all about managing change. It requires taking a long-term view, leaning into conflict and discomfort, and changing mindsets (and eventually behaviors). As a leader, you need to ask tough questions, steer people away from common responses (e.g. quickly addressing symptoms instead of causes), and help manage the losses that people may experience in the process. Implementing changes in my classroom took an enormous amount of persistence and consistency in order to fully take hold. My students didn’t magically embrace all of the changes we were making immediately. But over time, their beliefs about themselves, our classroom, and me as their teacher changed, and the result was a new way of operating.
The adaptive work I leveraged in my classroom was both challenging and time-consuming, but the results were worth it – my classroom became a highly functioning learning environment. Given the nuanced complexity and “heavy lifting” required for adaptive leadership, I highly recommend exploring resources like The Practice of Adaptive Leadership or the Cambridge Leadership Associates website to gain even more insight for tackling – and conquering – your most difficult adaptive challenges once and for all.