In organizations, as in all life, there are two types of challenges. Dr. Ronald Heifetz, director of the Centre of Public Leadership at Harvard University, calls one type the “technical challenge”. It’s the type of challenge for which an organization already developed the capacity, the know-how and the solutions. The organisation has the expertise to solve this type of problem. These problems can be solved from an authoritative approach where the authority structure of the organization provides an answer.
The other type has many names going from “messes” (Russell Ackoff), “soft problems” (Peter Checkland), “wicked problems” (Horst Rittel) to “adaptive challenges” (Heifetz). An adaptive challenge demands a response that is outside our current portfolio of solutions or expertise. Our current know-how is not sufficient and there is no expert to fix the problem. There are no current structures, stories or metaphors to match the challenge.
Example of a technical challenge
“The classic and most common failure in leadership is the diagnostic failure, i.e. treating an adaptive challenge as a technical challenge.” Dr. Ronald Heifetz.
From the bottom up, people will keep hoping that someone will come up with a solution, and from a state of dependency they will look at the authority in the organisation for a solution.
How do we stop this negative spiral?
The first thing, is to recognise an adaptive challenge from a technical one. Richard Mason and Ian Mitroff provide good indicators of a wicked problem:
Interconnectedness: strong connections link problems together, sometimes to form loops that circle between the problems.
Complicatedness: the challenge has many important elements with various relationships between them.
Uncertainty: the environment in which the problem exists is dynamic and very uncertain, leading to risk that may be incalculable.
Ambiguity: the challenge can be perceived in very different ways, depending on the viewers’ experiences, beliefs and values, and depending on the circumstances. And there is not a single correct view …
Conflict: often trade-offs are needed because of conflicting interests among the involved persons, departments or organizations. Maybe it’s unlikely that the involved parties will enter into full co-operation with each other.
Societal constraints: social, organizational, technological and political constraints and capabilities will impact the feasibility and desirability of certain solutions.
Even one of these characteristics can suffice to bring a challenge in the adaptive domain.
Recognising an adaptive challenge is one, now you need to develop the appropriate response to stop the cycle of technical solutions, failure and disappointment. The path to the solution of an adaptive challenge has three important elements:
A collaborative approach to solution finding,
There are some important messages to share with all people involved:
1) there are no quick technical solutions;
2) everybody will need to take their own responsibility to come to a solution;
3) everybody will have to pay a part of the cost in some way.
Example of an adaptive challenge
Make a call on the people to participate in the solution finding. The participation of all people involved will not only integrate all possible views, it will also increase the chances of their buy-in into the solutions. The solution finding needs a couple of important steps that are driven by the type of questions that are asked, and not by the answers given.
1) Exploration, challenging and learning: people will see this as the “unnecessary” stage that is a “waste of time” claiming that “we all know the problem, so let’s get on with it”. That is why you need to spend most of your time and energy here. This is the essential step in which you collectively challenge assumptions, shift unnecessary beliefs and question the shared values, attitudes and perceptions. Assume that everything you know is wrong.
2) Creating new possible and impossible options: the question that leads this stage is “what do we really want?” and the answers may not be constrained by critique, beliefs about what is possible and what not, or by the current thinking. Everything seems impossible until it’s done.
3) Decide about the path with the most potential: making choices is also a collaborative approach. We are not looking for the right solution, or even the best solution, those are terms of the technical challenge, not the adaptive challenge, and would lead to a conflict of positions. We are looking for the most collective potential. As a leader, you might not like the decisions made. Remember, your task is to lead, not to impose.
4) Develop the road into the new direction: this is the step into the next element ‘creating collective change’. Developing the road means providing the way so that every participant finds their role in the change. What will each one of us specifically do different tomorrow and beyond?
Creating collective change
The change will come from the change of behaviour, attitudes, beliefs and values of everyone involved, including the organizations. It’s no longer the task of the leaders to provide the answers, but it’s to ask the right questions. The answers to these questions are developed over time by the collective intelligence of the people.
The ability to do all of this, as a leader, requires the development of skills: asking the right questions, initiating the change of beliefs and attitudes, the shift of values and the change of behaviour. The rational approach will not get you there. These are not skills that we are naturally born with, it takes continuous learning to impact the people around us at the deeper level of our thinking.