“To practice leadership, you need to accept that you are in the business of generating chaos, confusion, and conflict.”
– The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools & Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, by Ronald Heifitz et al
Technical change can be successfully executed with knowledge, skills, and expertise that already exist within the organization. The problem to be solved is clear, the solution can be provided by an expert, and resolution comes relatively easily. Technical change requires management.
Adaptive change requires an organization to think differently, question the status quo, and, in order to be successfully executed, it often requires a paradigm shift. The problem to be solved is hard to discern, the solution requires new learning and thinking, and that solution cannot be provided by the leader or expert – in order to be lasting, it must come from within the organization. Adaptive change is not easy. And it is often messy. Adaptive change requires leadership.
I was introduced to this model of change in a leadership seminar that was built around Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading by Ronald Heifitz and Marty Linksy. If you are leading through change, and I believe we all are, I encourage you to check out their work. For me, it has been incredibly useful as I seek to continually learn and grow as a leader.
Learning to recognize technical and adaptive challenges, and lead accordingly, is essential for success – and sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.
Just after I came on board as Director, I started a process with staff to review and revise our key policies and procedures. One area we attacked was our fines and fees schedule and borrowing limits. In my mind, this was a technical challenge – we needed to lower our fines, raise our borrowing limits, streamline our fee schedule, and abandon outdated borrowing policies. No big whup, we’d knock it out in an afternoon meeting.
Weeks later, as the meetings got longer and the questions got deeper and the conversations a little heated, I realized that this was a very different challenge than what I had first thought. There were opposing mindsets, competing values, and neither the problems nor the solutions were easily discernible.
The previous mindset was “We have to limit people to five items on their first checkout, otherwise they might check out fifty items and never bring them back.” The new mindset I was trying to implement was “Let’s increase access and decrease barriers wherever possible. Let’s trust people and focus on how we might help them, not how we might punish them.” The distance between the two was greater than I thought.
I had not been to the leadership seminar yet – and was not aware of Heifitz and Linsky’s work. Had I known then what I know now, I would have realized earlier on that this was an adaptive challenge, not a technical one. I would have spent less time trying to bend people to my way of thinking, and more time exploring theirs. Much sooner, I would have stopped trying to find someone to just change the darn loan rules in the ILS and started finding ways to define problems and explore solutions together. I would have understood that I didn’t need to manage the technical change, I need to lead through an adaptive challenge.
Chaos, confusion, and conflict were definitely generated. But in the end, we didn’t come out with just a new set of loan rules and a revised fee schedule. We came out with the beginnings of a new organizational mindset, one that is indeed less punitive, more empowering, and more positive.
Do I wish I knew then what I know now? Sure. Perhaps the chaos, confusion, and conflict would have been reduced. But in the end, that triumvirate is always present during times of change, especially with adaptive change.
I find frameworks like Heifitz and Linksy’s to be those very tools and tactics we need to have on hand, whether we are changing the library or the world.
Are you familiar with their work? Have you faced an adaptive challenge? I’d love to hear about it.