THOUGHT LEADERSHIP Ronald Heifetz – The challenge of adaptive leadership

Few people know more than Ronald Heifetz about the perils and pitfalls of leading work that requires people to change their values, priorities or ways of doing business. Now internationally recognised for his seminal work on the practice and teaching of leadership, Heifetz produced his first book on the topic back in 1994. Over decade later, Leadership Without Easy Answers – which focuses on how to build adaptive capacity in societies and organisations – is now in its 13th printing and has been translated into many languages.
Three years ago, Heifetz outlined his thinking on how organisations connive to oppose change in his second book, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading – co-authored with Marty Linsky.
Heifetz talks here with Loren Gary about the distinguishing features of adaptive leadership: its similarity to the principles of evolutionary biology, how its conservative aspects are often overlooked, the kinds of resistance it evokes and how it differs from the challenge of technical leadership.

Please describe what adaptive work involves.
In biology, an adaptive pressure is situation that demands response that’s outside the organism’s current repertoire. In an evolutionary sense, the organism must distinguish what DNA to keep, what DNA to discard, and what innovations to build on in order to thrive in new and challenging environment. Applying this biological metaphor to cultures helps us understand that adaptive work is conservative as well as progressive.
In the 1930s, for example, Konosuke Matsushita refashioned the mission of Panasonic from being just profit-making company to being company that had the larger social mission of combating poverty by making products that were widely affordable and that would improve the lives of the masses of people around the world. That social mission was anchored in set of deeply conservative principles – among them, working toward the common good and serving your community with selflessness – that were rooted in Japanese history and culture and spiritual discipline.
Adaptive leadership, in other words, is not just about change. It’s also about identifying what you want to hold on to. In biology, most of the DNA is worth keeping. That’s also true in organisational and political life. It would be stupid to do radical surgery when it’s unnecessary. Yet many leaders forget to remind people that change process also involves lot of hard thinking about what to preserve.
That’s why I prefer to talk about leadership as the mobilising of adaptive work rather than as transformational change. The word transformation connotes creating something altogether new, rather than grafting an innovation onto the best from our history. Talking about transformation can lead to grandiosity – failure to respect the enormous wisdom frequently accumulated over an organisation’s cultural history.
The challenge with adaptive work, in biology and in organisational life, is to figure out how to capitalise on history without being enslaved by it. Ninety-nine percent of human’s DNA is the same as the DNA of chimpanzee. God didn’t do zero-based budgeting when he got frustrated that chimpanzees couldn’t quite carry on conversation with the divine in the way that perhaps he had hoped. Instead, God kept experimenting and tinkering. The resulting one-percent change that produced human DNA was very significant. It gave human beings an adaptability to thrive, in environments from the Arctic Circle to the Antarctic Circle, that chimpanzees could never attain. But it required changing only about one percent of human’s total genetic makeup – not 50 percent.

But attempts to change one percent of an organisation’s DNA typically get billed as “leading the revolution”.
The problem is that revolutions usually fail. Evolutions, in which dramatic innovation is grafted onto the best of the core competences of the past, have much better chance of succeeding.
When revolution tries to eradicate everything from the past, it ends up making the mistake that James Wolfenson made when he came on board as head of the World Bank: he discounted the enormous dedication and hard work of people who had devoted their whole careers to fighting poverty. If you have the notion that leadership is only about change, then you’re likely to increase the sources of your resistance. You step on great many more toes than is necessary, because you devalue the good things that people have been doing rather than simply getting them to discard part of what they’re doing.

What else does adaptive leadership entail?
After leaders have helped people sift through the past to distinguish the essential from the expendable, they must mobilise people for set of innovative experiments. The goal of these experiments is to graft onto the best of the organisational DNA so that the organisation can thrive in the future.
In biology, the adaptive process is experimental. Adaptation does not occur through central planning mechanism. It occurs through reproductive processes that generate high rate of mutation. Each of these mutations is an experiment and most of them fail. However, the high rate of mutation generates lot of diversity in the gene population, and that increases the odds that as the environment changes, some member of the population will have capacity that is needed in order to thrive.
Similarly, in organisational life, adaptive leadership requires an experimental mindset approach, not an “I’ve got the answers” mindset. It’s not enough to have vision for the future and to identify critical path for moving forward. Adaptive leaders have to understand that today’s plan is simply today’s best guess. They must be able to deviate from the plan when they discover realities they hadn’t anticipated.

So how does adaptive leadership differ from technical leadership?
With technical challenge, the problem and the fix are already known. That is, you’re facing challenge to which you have already developed successful adaptation. So the job really is to coordinate behaviour and mobilise people to perform at their best – what they already know how to do.
Now there’s nothing trivial about solving technical problems. Technical challenges can be life threatening and technical problem solving can be life saving. But the urgency or importance of the challenge is not what distinguishes an adaptive challenge from technical one. An adaptive challenge is primarily one that requires people to develop new ways of doing things. It requires people to suffer the losses of sifting through what DNA to discard from their past.
Technical challenges don’t have the same demand. They require you to know the state of the art so that you can implement and mobilise organisational expertise.

The most common source of failure in leadership, you write, is treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems. Why is that so?
Two reasons. First, when you attain position of significant authority, people inevitably expect you to treat adaptive challenges as if they were technical – to provide for them remedy that will restore equilibrium with the least amount of pain and in the shortest amount of time. That puts enormous pressure on people in authority to have the answer rather than to raise the tough questions. We see that dilemma even for doctor having to tell patient, “I can only solve part of the problem by operating – by doing surgery on your heart. The other part of the problem you’re going to have to solve by changing your diet, your exercise regime, and by quitting smoking.” Doctors are wonderfully trained in being technical experts but they are very poorly trained in mobilising people to change their ways.
An aspect of adaptive work that distinguishes it from technical work is that you cannot take the problem off people’s shoulders. In adaptive problems, the people themselves are the problem; the sol

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