We are often consulted to design skill-building programmes or high-performance initiatives as a result of the employee satisfaction surveys or other types of organizational assessments. When the organization is not happy with the results and commits to improve its performance one of the most common solution sought for is to “do more”: offer more training or create more systems and processes.What organizations fail to discern is the difference between technical challenges and adaptive challenges. As Harvard Prof. Ronald Heifezt describes, technical challenges are those whose set of competences and skills required to have success exists already, even if not known yet, and lay in the same realm of the current paradigm or mindset. Adaptive challenges require that people develop a whole new set of mindsets, values and ways of doing business. Adaptive challenges is about personal and collective transformation, is about challenging the current assumptions underlining the current culture and reframing it. The problem is that organizations look for technical solutions to address adaptive challenges and it never works.“Adaptive” pressure in biology is when the successful response to the environment comes from outside the current possibilities and capacity of the organism. It means that the organism must observe its processes and discern what is still working, what needs to be abandoned and what needs transformation to succeed in a changed environment. This is what an organization must do when the environmental conditions change or when old tested strategies do not work anymore.
Adaptive challenges cannot be dealt with “more of the same” (more training, more systems, more meeting, more pressure, etc.). What leaders need to be successful is walking a path of self-discovery and development that enables them to undergo a personal and collective transformation and be at ease with the uncertainty of exploring new territories.
In our transformation programmes we equip leaders to become adaptive leaders and this journey include:
leaders must look at what is really happening in the environment and among the employees, what is really happening in the system, what culture has been developing in the organization, their role in this culture. Prof. Heifetz talks about “getting on the balcony” of a situation and observe from that higher point of view.
leaders must become aware of the personal and collective meaning-making process underlying the unwanted results and become familiar with how this process and our fear-based , survival biology of each human being tends to reiterate old-engrained patterns and to sabotage the desired change.
Leaders must develop the ability to turn what is subject to them (their emotions, fear-based patterns, ideology, strategies) into object in order to question the way they make sense and interpret what’s going on inside and outside of them. In other words, as Harvard Professor and my colleague Robert Kegan puts it, something that we are not aware of (because it is embedded in our subjective awareness), we later become aware of objectively. When something is object to us we can take a perspective on it, hold it as external to our own experience, and take responsibility for it, and transform it, because we are no longer captive to it.
Generate new mindsets and behaviors:
Mastering the process just described enables leaders to free themselves from old limiting mindsets and meaning-making patterns creates the space for a new, more evolutionary and effective repertoire of behaviors and skills for addressing adaptive challenges.
We now live in a world characterized by rapid change, accelerating scientific and technological breakthroughs and an unprecedented level of competitiveness. These challenges are all adaptive and ask for a greater capacity for innovation, self-management, personal responsibility and self-direction.
Giovanna D’Alessio, MCC