WHAT IS ADAPTIVE LEADERSHIP? CliffsNotes for the curious . . .

It's a powerful, road-tested framework for engaging with sticky, can't-quite-seem-to-make-progress sorts of challenges: moving from the way we used to do business to a truly client-centered approach, caring for aging parents, developing trust across teams, alleviating poverty in rural communities. Developed by Ron Heifetz, Marty Linsky and their colleagues at Harvard’s Kennedy School, adaptive leadership is a resource for thinking strategically about seemingly intractable, often unprecedented challenges. The framework has been built over the last 30 years while working with groups of participants from across sectors and around the world. 

Four core practices at the heart of adaptive leadership:

1) To survive and thrive, identify and iterate on strategic adaptations. While change is incremental in time and monumental over time, every system is in constant adaptation. And yet most adaptation happens unconsciously. This framework puts adaptation in the foreground, helping organizations identify the 5-10% of their legacy work and behavior that is expendable to create space for innovation. The catch: adaptation is always contested terrain. What one group points to as vestigial, another sees as vital.

2) To operate strategically, distinguish technical problems from adaptive challenges. Technical problems—repairing a flat tire or performing bypass surgery—are those that require expertise and for which there are successful known protocols. Both the problem and solution are clear. Adaptive challenges—changing a community’s eating habits or creating sound immigration policy—have markedly different characteristics. Here the problem definition and the solution metrics are open to multiple interpretations; no sure-fire protocol exists; to make progress, the people with the problem will have to refashion their priorities, values, and behaviors.  The single biggest waste of time and resources is treating an adaptive challenge as though it were technical.

3) To mobilize people, speak to purpose and acknowledge loss. Leadership exists only in the context of purpose. To make progress on an adaptive challenge requires keen diagnosis: the ability to get up on the balcony to see more of the system, while resisting the leap to instant action. Central to the work of leading adaptively is raising the heat so that people can no longer avoid confronting inevitable losses. To sustain this heat as productive energy requires a clear purpose. In the face of resistance, amping up purpose helps tamp down real and perceived losses.

4) To ignite broad ownership, uncouple leadership from authority.  Authority is a role or position in an organization or hierarchy. With that authority comes a contractual expectation: to provide protection, order, and direction to those authorizing you. When the work is technical, authority is an excellent resource for execution. However, when the work is adaptive, organizations need a strategy for engaging people across the system they aim to change. Leadership is an act or behavior which anyone may step into, at any time, from anywhere in an organization. The work of leadership is mobilizing people to make progress on a shared adaptive challenge. Those with authority may or may not step into the work of leadership. Thus the good news: the work of leadership is everyone’s to claim.

By Jill Hufnagel & Sabina Nawaz

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