When an organization is presented with a shift in technology, a new customer preference, or a new marketing dynamic, it often focuses on solutions such as implementing new technologies, consulting experts or improving communication processes.
In this traditional method, the top layer of management is typically responsible for finding the right solutions. Organizations often view that top layer of management as a single body that will provide order, direction and protection.
Although order, direction and protection are all important aspects, they don’t define leadership.
A leader is someone who can guide others through adaptive changes. Leadership is not directed by one sole being but an entire team working simultaneously to accomplish goals. When faced with a challenge that doesn’t have one true answer, implementing adaptive leadership becomes crucial.
What Is Adaptive Leadership?
After three decades of studying at Harvard University, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky introduced a leadership model known as “adaptive leadership.” Heifetz defines adaptive leadership as an act of mobilizing individuals to manage challenges and emerge triumphantly in the end. Adaptive leadership provides a solution for business-related issues while challenging traditional models that have reigned prominently in organizations for years. Leaders tend to combine authority and leadership, even when the two words hold different meanings.
In the language of adaptive leadership, those with formal authority have the right to enforce a decision. For example, a physician has the authority to provide medical treatments; a professor has the authority to teach college students; and a manager has the authority to hire, fire or give out assignments.
Leadership differs from authority in that it is the ability to lead people through problems. Leaders challenge norms, ask questions, and orchestrate conflict resolution. Due to the vagueness surrounding adaptive problems, an adaptive leader is an essential asset in defining the problem at hand and working with other team members to create possible solutions.
Within the adaptive leadership model, three types of problems are recognized: technical, adaptive, and both adaptive and technical. Technical problems are issues with predetermined responses. As noted by Eric Kaufman of Virginia State University, organizations are able to resolve technical challenges through the current structures and procedures. In contrast, adaptive problems often do not have an established answer and require learning.
When addressing adaptive problems, there are no trained professionals equipped with the right answer and no written procedures to address the issue. Technical solutions are not the answer to adaptive challenges. They may provide a “Band-Aid” at first, but the progress it creates is more of an illusion than a reality.
Outlined by Bill McCollum and Kevin Shea, adaptive challenges require a leader who can recognize the complexity of an issue and be willing to change current standards and behaviors. Along with that, leaders must have the courage to move forward and have patience when addressing the challenge. Most problems today will contain both technical and adaptive elements, thus requiring a careful examination to see where technical and adaptive solutions can be applied.
I had the opportunity to lead several IT agile transformations in the past. In most of these cases, the biggest challenges were not technical ones, such as training employees on scrum, kanban or scaled methodologies, but instead, they involved creating a culture and an environment that fosters trust and embraces transparency and continuous learning and improvement.
Leading people through changes often involve altering their roles and sometimes identities. As we transitioned from a traditional waterfall model to practice agile methodology, for example, project managers and business analysts are required to pick up new skill sets, change the way they perform and become scrum masters and product owners, respectively.
To truly thrive in a challenging environment, adaptive leadership is crucial. Adopting this leadership style will not be easy at first. As mentioned by Heifetz and Linsky in the Harvard Business Review, there will be those who will undercut those who are leading change initiatives. Those who are afraid of change will strive for comfortability and what they know. They will try their best to protect themselves against the pains associated with change. This may present a challenge, but the short-term struggle is worth the long-term gain. Leaders who employ an adaptive style can build dynamic teams that welcome change and transform uncertainty into positivity. Adaptive leadership helps equip both leaders and an organization with the skills necessary to face any challenge and emerge triumphantly, even when faced with volatility.
Adaptive leadership is all about encouraging, experimenting and implementing change, whether that be through policy or attitudes. There will be those who will be reluctant to change and who are set in their own beliefs. For those who are unwilling to adapt, one may notice them marginalizing, diverting or attacking to avoid adaptive change. However, sticking to policies of the past can hinder the valuable benefits that change can bring.
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