Ron Heiftz, 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) write that status quo is elegant and tenacious. As they explain, “Yesterday’s adaptive pressures, problems, and opportunities generated creative and successful responses in the organization that evolved through trial and error into new and refined structures, cultural norms and default processes and mind-sets…. Yesterday’s adaptive challenges are today’s technical problems.”
What we have to recognize as adaptive leaders is that “over time, the structures, culture, defaults that make up an organizational system become deeply ingrained, self-reinforcing, and very difficult to reshape.” Thus, many leaders and organizations “get trapped by their current ways of doing things, simply because these ways worked in the past.”
When taking the first step to solving adaptive problems, the authors recommend you “get on the balcony” so you can see how your organizational system is responding to adaptive challenges and problems. This popular metaphor of getting on the balcony is based on the understanding that there is a “dance floor” or “practice field,” where you work on a day to day basis, and then there is a “balcony”, where you can see the bigger picture. This concept is very familiar to this who have read the book, Great By Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos, and Luck - Why Some Thrive Despite Them All by Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen where these two authors talk about how leaders zoom out before zooming in to deal with a problem. From the balcony, adaptive leaders are able to gain a better understanding of their company’s structures, culture and defaults, i.e. “its habitual ways of responding to problems.”
This week, give yourself permission to spend more time on the balcony than the dance floor. Then, spend more time understanding how status quo is working and what are the defaults within your organization. This depth of work will help when it comes to designing effective new solutions.