In times of uncertainty and change, what is good leadership differs from how to lead routine work in steady conditions. The first step is to understand how the difference between technical and adaptive challenges. Because it is in the very problem definition phase that a leader goes wrong.

Is it a technical or an adaptive challenge? Why people sometimes get it wrong to identify challenges and solutions in times of change and uncertainty.

As an Executive Coach, I get to work with some brilliant people. These people are leaders in multinational corporations. Most of them have very strong technical skills, which made them successful and brought them to the leadership position that they are in now. In this regard, despite their unique personalities and trait, I believe they are rather representative of most executives.

Are you more interested in reading in Danish? Then you can find the article here.

Closing the gaps?

For many leaders, minimising risk and uncertainty is imperative, or at least, is at the core of leadership. Sometimes the solution involves hiring consultants that can provide a detailed step-by-step process with the objective of closing the gaps. But this doesn’t always work, especially not now. No one really knows where things are going in these times of great uncertainty and it can be rather unproductive to take a technical approach to something that is really an adaptive challenge.   

The hardest thing is not to learn new ways, but to unlearn what used to be the right thing to do.

Is your challenge technical or adaptive?

There is a difference between technical and adaptive challenges. It’s really important to understand how these differ to lead in uncertainty, solve the challenges, and be agile.

Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky, researchers at Harvard University, identified two types of challenges in change: adaptive and technical challenges. 

Technical or adaptive challenges
There is a difference between technical and adaptive challenges. It’s really important to understand how that differs to lead in uncertainty solve the challenges to make that change happen.

A technical challenge is defined as a challenge that can be solved by the knowledge of experts, whereas adaptive challenges require new learning. When the problem definition, solution, and implementation are clear, Heifetz calls this a technical change. For adaptive change, it is different. The problem might not be clear, nor the solution or implementation. That is what we experience in times of uncertainty. The problem definition then must be explored. Change must come from the collective intelligence of the employees at all levels, where they learn their way toward solutions together.

Most of today’s challenges are a combination of technical and adaptive challenges. Merely taking a technical approach to a problem won’t always solve your problems. As you may have already learned, the same feedback and issues will just continue to return if you don’t also engage an adaptive approach.

Be agile with the adaptive approach 

You can increase your organisational agility by adopting the adaptive approach. Engaging in an adaptive approach takes new learning and experimentation. It also requires the action to happen within the organisation rather than having an external provider solve the issue. The leader needs to challenge and empower the people in the organisation. The people who are closest to the issue and explore new ways, develop new skills and find new ways of perceiving the issue(s). This might even mean that they develop new mental models. That is what I call the programming of our minds. The hardest thing is not to learn new ways but rather, to unlearn what used to be the right thing to do.

Imagine your mind as a computer. You were born with a hard drive. As you grow up, you learn about the world. In the beginning, you are explorative and playful, until you learn what is up and what is down. This becomes the first set of programmes. But, it doesn’t stop in childhood. All of your experiences, especially your first important job as a leader forms how you solve problems and how you lead. These also become new programs. In the context, where these programs were made they made perfect sense and they were the best thing to do. However, now, you are often running on autopilot and the context has changed. The question has now become: Are you using the right program and applying the right approach? Again, the hardest thing is not to learn new ways but to unlearn what used to be the right thing to do.

Follow me and subscribe to to read my upcoming articles: Adaptive leadership: on how effective leadership in steady conditions differs from effective leadership in times of uncertainty and change, and a piece on why change is so hard and how to hack the immunity to change.

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