Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Questioning Fundamental Assumptions

Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity to spend most of a day with some Iowa high school, student government leaders. I was so impressed with their upbeat attitudes, perspective and openness to learning about leadership, communications and teamwork. With these young people as the future leaders of our country, we are in for a tremendous amount of positive and focused effort to make the world a better place.

As I often do with young people, I ask them to introduce themselves to me by sharing their name, grade, what role they play in student leadership and something unusual that I might not guess when I first meet them. I in turn share something about myself that they might not guess about me. As we came around the circle, a young man introduced himself and said he was a good wrestler. I smiled and replied that I was a wrestler in high school, too.

Given my Mom worked where I went to school, going home after school was not an option. I stayed because she stayed; she was my ride home. When I was in sixth grade, I discovered the varsity wrestling program one day after school and during the winter months I hung out with them until my Mom was done work around 5:00 pm. By the time I was in middle school, I often practiced with them, mostly because I did not have anything else to do after school. By ninth grade, I was a member of the varsity wrestling team. I even was a part of the Penn-Jersey championship team at the school one year. Not that I was a very good wrestler; most of the time I was cannon fodder for what ever weight class was missing someone. I wrestled up or down 1-2 weight classes and was told not to get pinned. Sometimes, I was successful.

When I shared with this young man that I was a former high school wrestler, he was stunned. He just looked at me and had that “Really?” look on his face. I guess he could not picture me, a bald 50+ year old presenter on leadership, as a wrestler, let alone some one who was on a champion team. I don’t know what he imagined when someone who wrestled in middle and high school got older but I was not the picture he had in his head. Maybe he had pictured “retired” high school wrestlers with huge biceps, massive thigh muscles, a butch hair cut and an awesome tattoo. Whatever it was, I was not fitting into his mental picture. For this young man, I clearly was an adaptive problem, calling into question his fundamental beliefs of what happened next.

Many people this winter are encountering adaptive problems. So much so that I believe it would be good today to review the difference between adaptive and technical problems. First, we need to remember that the solution to technical problems are already present within the organization's repertoire. On the other hand, an adaptive problem forces the organization to change, lest it decline.

In more detail, technical challenges or problems fall within our current range of problem-solving expertise. It is clearly defined and a leader or manager can implement a known solution. This involves connecting the right person or tool to the problem and applying existing skills, resources and processes.

On the other hand, adaptive challenges or problems require new perspective, expertise and solutions. In the beginning, defining the problem may require learning and often calls into question fundamental assumptions and beliefs. The solution to an adaptive problem can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and loyalties. In essence, adaptive problem solving requires new ways of thinking.

One element we forget when dealing with adaptive problems is resistance to loss. As Ronald Heifetz, Ronald, 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, (what I consider to be the best resource out there on this subject) note that finding out what these losses are, e.g. “a changing situation from life and loved ones to jobs, wealth, status, relevance, community, loyalty, identity and competence,” is vital to success.

For the young student leader who could not get his mind around my being a former high school wrestler who was on a champion team in the 70’s, an adaptive challenge requires tremendous thought and introspection. But with time, patience and perspective, it can lead to new ideas and understandings.

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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