We expect our Leaders to know what to do. But what happens when a team or organisation is faced with problems for which the Leader doesn’t know what to do? Or couldn’t possibly know because the situation hasn’t been encountered before? Then what?
Ronald Heifetz first codified the notion of Adaptive Challenges, together with the seven tools of Adaptive Leadership, in the mid-90′s. Adaptive Challenges are those for which there is no known solution – often because we haven’t experienced them before. Most organisations have flourished on their ability to handle Technical problems – those for which they already know the answer and can ‘fix’ based on their knowledge and expertise. Adaptive Challenges are different in that they call upon us to learn our way – actively – through the problem, which by definition needs us to acknowledge that we initially don’t know ‘the solution’. To tackle these sorts of challenges requires Leaders to take on a new role. They need to accept – and welcome – not knowing all the answers. But, more importantly, they need to accept that one person can’t know, and to have the confidence to engage their team in a different process to what they’ve known before. And that takes courage.
Adaptive Leadership involves setting the context within which teams can learn their way through the challenge together, engendering creativity and inspiration.
Adaptive Leadership is an art that is most powerful when taught as an integral part of a process that generates a leap in capability for any organisation. Although counter-intuitive, there can be great strength and opportunity for those Leaders who are prepared to show a little vulnerability by acknowledging that they don’t know what to do – provided it’s part of an organisation-wide cultural shift. That shift calls upon Leaders to say “I don’t know”, closely followed by “but this is why I’m committed to finding a way forward” and “I have a team who can work it out”. Adaptive Leadership involves setting the context within which teams can learn their way through the challenge together, engendering creativity and inspiration.
One of several essential elements of this context is being clear on the organisation’s Why (its higher purpose or belief); this acts as the guiding force and filter for innovation and ideas. Another is about Leaders showing that they are receptive to those ideas through how they’re Being: we all know how someone’s attitude can be a major deterrent to others making suggestions. Crucially, these elements and other building-blocks are leveraged by Relationship – the relationship team members have to one another, their environment and their strengths. The stronger those relationships, the more that team will accomplish.
So, for those willing to take on this process of cultural shift that makes Adaptive Leadership possible, what are the benefits?
With Adaptive Leadership as an inherent part of its culture, an organisation is well placed to deal with the unexpected. If teams are strongly connected to their collective Why, and led by those who welcome and encourage new ideas and thoughts, then it’s the perfect place for collectively learning their way through the problem. And because Leaders actively generate the environment for their team to flourish and find the answers, everyone is comfortable with their Leaders not knowing exactly what to do. In fact, they gain strength by realising that they are a part of a team that can confidently take on anything because they have the tools to learn their way through any problem. Now that’s a powerful proposition.
What about the role of Adaptive Leadership in business resilience? One definition of ‘resilience’ is the ability to absorb an external force and then bounce back – particularly relevant in today’s economy. Teams that are based on a culture and principles of Adaptive Leadership have the inherent confidence and ability to ‘bounce back’ – not least because they are connected to their organisation’s Why. And this is important, since often the damage done to a business can be more about the effect a disaster can have on people’s well-being and sense of security, less on whether one has a robust IT back-up system or procedures.
And how about businesses whose performance has stagnated or in which there is a desire to cause a step-change? How can a culture of Adaptive Leadership work there? A team built on relationship; a clear commitment to a higher purpose or Why; an acceptance of the need for learning; a environment where ideas and possibilities are encouraged; and Leaders who are seen as the guardians of the Why and facilitators of the team which can work out How: well, that’s a recipe for sustainable, fulfilling business in which breakthroughs in performance are not only possible, but really rather difficult to avoid.
If you are prepared to embrace Adaptive Leadership as part of a wider cultural shift, it sets-up your organisation to achieve breakthroughs in business performance – while also making it intrinsically more resilient and capable in a crisis. The added bonus is that you have a culture that serves all three scenarios, one that is tuned to, and thrives on, the unpredictable and unknown, rather than one that is focused on managing just what is known.