Monday, April 12, 2010

Building an Adaptive Organization - part #1

THEME: Spring 2010 From Vision to Action Roundtable Report

FOCUS: Building an Adaptive Organization - part #1

Monday morning: April 12, 2010

Dear friends,

Recently, after a morning meeting on strategy with a client, I stood up, left the room to get another bottle of water, and then came back in. When I returned, the tension and worry in the room was palpable. The senior executive explained to those gathered that there was a high probability the organization was going to have to lay-off people this June. The goal of this next meeting was to determine how to do it right.

From coast to coast, the number one concern amongst executives is whether or not they have the quality and skill level within their personnel at all levels in the organization to cope with the on-going pressures of this current economy. The second concern is how to manage their organization and continue to deliver positive outcomes, i.e. profit and growth, when their funding streams and budgets are decreasing. Everything else is secondary.

The standard solution to such concerns is to do the following: keep people informed, listen, set clear objectives, match the person with the job, and create meaningful work. While I recognize that all of these are good management activities, I think we need to explore these concerns at a deeper level, recognizing that the goal during challenging times is to create an adaptable delivery model.

The first step in this process is to understand the differences in your problems. Referencing the work of Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky in their book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, Harvard Business Press, 2009, we need to remember that there basically two kinds of problems. The first is a technical problem whose solution already lies within the organization's repertoire. The second is an adaptive problem which forces the organization to change lest it decline.

A technical problem falls within our range of current problem-solving and expertise. The problem is clearly defined and known solutions can be implemented by accessing current know-how. A leader needs to apply the right person or tool to the problem to create the right solution. Again, the critical part is to realize that the problem can be fixed by applying existing skills, resources and processes.

An adaptive problem, on the other hand, requires new perspective, expertise and solutions. Here, it may be difficult to actually define the problem. Those involved may need to learn new information and confront issues that call into question fundamental assumptions and beliefs. Furthermore, the solution to this problem can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and loyalties. In short, it may require a whole new ways of thinking.

Having worked on many of these kinds of problems since the Fall 2009 From Vision to Action Executive Roundtable, I have learned a few things. First, when facing an adaptive problem, people do not know where to start. Typically, their diagnosis of an adaptive problem comes from past technical reference points which are not always helpful.

Second, they attempt to define the problem, determine a solution, and try to implement the solution in a rapid manner. However, as Hieftz and others have noted, “... the common factor for generating adaptive failure is resistance to loss.” The authors of the above mentioned book advise that a key to leadership when dealing with adaptive problems is “the diagnostic capacity to find out the kinds of losses at stake in a changing situation from life and loved ones to jobs, wealth, status, relevance, community, loyalty, identity and competence.” This helps those involved work from a more holistic perspective.

Third, working on an adaptive problems means working at a different pace of change. While a technical problem may cause quite a bit of disequilibrium to status quo in the beginning, an adaptive is typically the opposite. Yet, as the problem is defined, it will cause a raise in the disequilibrium of status quo. Therefore, while a technical problem can be quickly defined and delegated to people to solve, an adaptive problem may need on-going leadership attention and involvement throughout the solution process.

This week, spend more time diagnosing the problem before you rush out to fix it. As Albert Einstein explained, “If I had an hour to save the world, I’d spend 55 minutes defining the problem.”

Have a fantastic week,


Geery Howe, M.A.
Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in
Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change

Morning Star Associates
319 - 643 - 2257

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