Adaptive Leadership for a VUCA World

by Jean Richardson on May 22, 2017

Adapt or die.  We’ve all heard that ultimatum before.  When the challenges that drive the need to adaptive are huge, systemic, pervasive, and quietly slow moving, such as an entire industry that is shrinking, a business model that is losing its relevance, or a chronic disease that will shorten your life, the urgency to adapt doesn’t seem to be there.

I was talking with a colleague last night about a large insurance company that is faced with loss of relevance.  The executives are clear about the threats to their business.  They know they can count the relevance of their business model and operational approach in years in the single digits.  Privately held for generations, they recently sold to an offshore investor, and they know now that, in addition to the pressures of the business context, the they are now one year into a three-year window which will likely be slammed shut by the new owners at the end of that three years.  They know they much change much:  products and how they build, service, and sell them.  Simple, right?  We know how to change, right?  But their very stable employee base doesn’t see the tidal wave coming through the forest and the trees.  They’re focused on retirement and how well things have gone in the past.

Now what?

Adaptive leadership provides an approach to driving adaptation iteratively in the context of complexity when not everyone sees the need to adapt.  It allows that leadership is sometimes disruptive and not always about being a candidate for most well-liked.  It is based on work coming out of MIT and has several simple tenants.

  • Organizational change happens through experimentation.
  • Organizations thrive by maximizing the value of diverse participants and diverse views.
  • Leaders are made, not necessarily born.
  • Leaders lead adaptive change best when they recognize they are a system in a system, not an answer-giver.
  • Leadership is not based on authority.
  • Organizations are ecosystems that can benefit from diagnosis and iterative, experimental intervention.

Adaptive leadership focuses on adaptive, not technical, challenges.  Adaptive challenges have the following hallmarks:

  • The language of complaint clusters around the problem.
  • Previously successful experts and authorities are unable to solve the problem.
  • Failure rate increases and frustration and stress show up. Known problem solving and solution approaches have been tried repeatedly without success.
  • The problem re-appears after it is apparently solved.
  • Conflict and frustration are rising, generating chaos and urgency around trying something new.

You may also know these as “wicked problems.”

Adaptive Leadership provides methods for identify, diagnosing, intervening experimentally using short feedback loops, interpreting the result, and resetting the diagnosis.  This work is best not done alone.  In my opinion, it is also best done in tandem with a Servant Leadership or Pervasive Leadership stance.  Let the process change you; be wary of your draw toward (or the system’s attempts to) creating yourself as a answer-giver with a backpack of right answers for the situation.

In complex and critical situations, just telling others what to do may be the most appropriate thing if you have supreme skill with or ultimate authority and accountability for solving the problem.  But too much leadership today is approached from that perspective.  Adaptive Leadership is a method for both leading and drawing knowledge and leadership from those led.  You may think of it as the practice of mobilizing yourself and others to tackle complex problems in order to thrive.

The most eye-opening Gestalt experience of understanding the gist of Adaptive Leadership came to me through this little video:  https://youtu.be/KHpWzEiBJMI

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