Leadership Adaptive or Technical? (part 1)

Leadership Adaptive or Technical? (part 1)


technical or adaptive?

Awhile back a friend recommended I read a book called Leadership on the Line.

I’ve read many books on leadership, but this one suggested an interesting paradigm for leading a business or organization. I think the simple approach works well in families and in cross cultural spaces also.  Basically, the authors describe two kinds of solutions and two kinds of problems: technical and adaptive.  Hang with me, it’s really pretty simple.

Technical problems (TPs) are easy to identify and call for technical solutions, like new technology or system or new policy or production technique. They usually can be solved without involving the community or much discussion.  “Experts” figure out what the technical solution is and implement it.  Adaptive challenges or problems (ACs) are difficult to diagnose accurately, involve attitudes and culture(s) and require adaptive (often long-term, multi-faceted or non-technical) solutions, like attitude changes, new corporate culture or adjusting one’s worldview.

Let’s see how this might work in a family living cross culturally: The eleven year-old son refuses to greet local guests who come into the house.  His parents want to solve this problem. 

Is this a technical or adaptive problem?  Well…, does he know the local greetings?  Does he know how to say hello and greet local people in the local language?  If he does not, then perhaps the problem is technical.  Spend a little time teaching him and practicing with him.  Then give him a change to show off his new technical skills. 

But what if he DOES already know the language and is just being impolite and unpleasant and ornery.  Or what if he knows the local culture BETTER than his parents and has intuited that it is impolite for him to greet adults unless they seek him out first and introduce himself?  Have his parents correctly diagnosed the situation?

This could be an adaptive problem, not a technical one, right?  Adaptive problems require adaptive solutions.  The boy’s bad attitude towards guests might be just one manifestation of an attitude that affects many other areas of his life at home, at school, at work and at play. 

The parents’ attitude that all problems have technical solutions may need to be addressed.  The parents’ assumptions that they understand culture better than their son may need to be discarded. Your son has to take responsibility for his attitude, and take a look at his heart level responses in order to experience effective adaptive change.

As a follower of Jesus, I’d say the son needs God’s help in order to experience true and lasting change at a heart level, not merely a behavioral level.  If the parents have misunderstood the local culture, and the boy doesn’t have an attitude problem, perhaps they do…. they need humility in order to be willing to listen to their son and acknowledge their mistakes.

So, can you feel the difference in approaches?  First, try to understand accurately the nature of the problem.  Is it Technical or Adaptive?

“To meet adaptive challenges, people must change their hearts as well as their behavior. Leadership on the Line p. 127.

To put it another way: For Technical Problems (TPs), the family, business, team or organization usually can find the answer external to the problem or situation.  

But, Adaptive Problems and Challenges (ACs)  require painful transitions in attitudes, values, and/or behaviors. Adaptive change must be internalized by the people with the problem. Hearts and minds must change not just preferences or routine behaviors (see page 60). Many families treat all problems as technical problems rather than recognizing the adaptive challenges for what they are.

“Indeed, the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify – in politics, community life, business, or the nonprofit sector – is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive change like technical problems.(Leadership on the Line page 14)

Parents sometimes want to think that there is a technical (disciplinary, environmental, behavioristic rewards and punishment, educational, medical, pharmaceutical) solution to their children’s adaptive challenges.  But businesses, teams and organizations sometimes make the same mistake, don’t they? Leaders and managers would like to think there is a technical solution (change operating procedures, new training programs, new software or corporate network, enforce new protocols, issue authoritarian policy decisions, budget cuts, change the organizational structure) to every problem, even applying technical solutions to adaptive challenges like low morale, absenteeism, poor work habits, unethical behavior, cross cultural misunderstandings, insubordination, poor supervision, etc.  Sometimes there is a technical solution to a problem; often there is not and a technical solution merely buys time,   but doesn’t help people adapt and adjust at a deeper, truly effective level, because it doesn’t involve the people in the adaptive solution, … (to be continued)

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