Making messy challenges manageable with adaptive leadership
Adaptive leadership equips leaders with a framework and the tools required to accurately diagnose and confront difficult situations in challenging times
When the failure rate of change initiatives in organisations around the world sits at 70 per cent according to McKinsey & Company, successful change seems nearly remarkable.
In an increasingly complicated, fast-paced world, it’s harder than ever to lead change effectively. In fact, many initiatives are doomed to fail from the start, according to Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Farayi Chipungu. “Our research over the last 40 years shows the biggest waste of time, energy, and social capital in organisational life tends to be caused by a diagnostic failure. People get the diagnosis of the problem wrong, so they apply the wrong solution,” she said.
Adaptive challenges – ones that require deep discovery, engagement, empathy and collaboration – are often treated as technical problems. And when you apply a technical solution to an adaptive challenge, organisations end up, “having a really high error rate and end up burning through social capital and resources”.
When defining the problem is part of the problem
If life only had technical problems – ones that are clear and can be solved with expertise, time and money – it would be a lot simpler. But in reality, people face complex and messy challenges every day that resources and technical expertise alone won’t solve.
These adaptive challenges can be so complicated that even defining the problem itself is problematic. It might be a challenge you have never faced before, or it is so multifaceted that individuals in your team try to solve it from different angles. Or maybe the issue is around getting consensus about the fact that there is even a challenge – or the urgency of it.
Adaptive challenges are difficult because getting from A to B will typically involve not only experts but also various stakeholders. This means leaders need to account for an organisation’s DNA as well as a community’s or people’s deeply held beliefs, values and ways of working. And changing these takes time.
Adaptive leadership equips leaders with the tools and a framework to accurately diagnose and confront difficult situations and flourish in turbulent times. Here are four ways this model can help you make progress on adaptive challenges.
1. Identify the right kind of leadership for any challenge
Problems rarely fall strictly into one category or another, they often have both technical and adaptive elements.
And while adaptive leadership is designed for solving today’s complex challenges, it “is not a panacea,” explained Professor Catherine Althaus, ANZSOG Professorial Chair Public Service Leadership and Reform, UNSW Canberra, and Director of the UNSW Academy of Adaptive Leadership.
“Rather, it’s an additive to the leadership repertoire. It adds to all the other things you know about leadership and allows you to be pragmatic about picking and choosing different pieces of frameworks that might be relevant. Because the most important question in leadership to ask is what kind of leadership is needed here and now, in this time in place.”
For example, part of Sydney Trains’ transition to digital signaling is a simple technical problem that requires a traditional approach to leadership. But during a panel discussion at the 2023 AGSM Professional Forum, Matthew Longland, Chief Executive of Sydney Trains, acknowledged that the real challenge is far more complex than implementing new technology. They also need to navigate the complex human emotions of fear of change and trust.
“People are afraid that it will be like the driverless Sydney Metro, but that is not what we’re delivering. So we need to help our people understand what’s in it for them,” Longland explained. “What problem we’re solving from their perspective and what real benefits it offers them.”
And so, the rail service operator has adopted an adaptive leadership approach, meeting its people where they are. Through immersive sessions, the leadership team listen and learn about what they can do to help navigate change in a way that brings its people and all other stakeholders on a journey.
2. Prepare for loss
The transformation process is often uncomfortable and comes with a certain amount of loss. These losses can come as a material loss or losses of competency and identity – and they’re often the things that hinder meaningful change.
People may feel like they are losing control when the organisation moves to a new office. Or when processes change and usual work patterns are disrupted, they might feel a loss of familiarity. If they are made redundant, they might feel a loss of purpose or experience a financial loss.
Adaptive leadership helps you recognise the losses people face during the transition process, acknowledge them, and help people through them. “When we do that, we have more options in terms of strategy. Think about how you acknowledge that loss and how you factor that into the change you’re trying to drive. If you can cushion the loss by helping people see the gentle landing at the end and by guiding them through the process – whether that’s rescaling, finding them other opportunities, or giving them some runway – they’ll be much more likely to get on board with you,” Ms Chipungu suggested.
Greg Joffe, Principal at NOUS Group, shared an example of people experiencing loss at one of the biggest agencies in the world during the panel discussion.
When NASA scientists and engineers got stuck on a radiation problem they’d been working on for over 30 years, senior leaders decided to share it with the rest of the world to solve. In three months, a retired engineer with a different perspective succeeded. This created a significant sense of loss of pride and self-worth for many scientists at NASA.
It is times like these that leaders need to make sure their people come back to why they are at the organisation, Joffe suggested. “You need to spend a lot of time reconnecting with people about their purpose. Helping them identify what their critical role is. And what does this mean for how they do their work, leveraging processes, using information systems, extracting things to get things better?”
3. Know when to get out of the way
In traditional models of leadership, people look to leaders for answers. Adaptive leadership recognises that those at the top don’t always have the answers. It promotes curiosity and focuses on asking questions rather than offering solutions.
It also democratises leadership and enables everyone in the organisation to step up when needed to help create progress. Allowing you to look at the whole system from above and identify what part of the system you play – whether you need to take the lead or get out of the way.
“We have to ask ourselves, what part of the mess am I? Sometimes I need to step out of the room because I’m part of the problem. Or maybe I’m not doing enough. We need to take responsibility. Adaptive leadership is a practice that democratises leadership – everyone is implicated, everyone is involved,” shared Professor Althaus.
Leaders may have roles with formal authority, but if they don’t have social influence, they won’t be able to make change happen. An important part of a leader’s role is to identify where the critical levers are that will move the system forward and create progress – rather than merely focusing on the leaders involved. “As a leader, it can be incredibly difficult to say, ‘I don’t know the answer.’ Or ‘I could fix a part of this, but you might have to feel a little bit uncomfortable, too.’ What tends to happen is we take that problem off people’s shoulders, and we try to resolve it, but then we get no results,” explained Ms Chipungu.
4. Focus on progress, not a solution
The sheer complexity of adaptive challenges means that often there is no solution. The best you can hope for is progress. There are no quick fixes because the transformation of this magnitude takes time.
For the past two years, Katrina McPhee, Chief of Staff at Aware Super, has been leading the company through what she calls a “people transformation”. Aware Super is part of a fiercely competitive, rapidly consolidating, trillion-dollar industry. To develop a competitive advantage, Aware Super invested in a world-class technology stack, and rebranded and implemented a range of technical solutions. But the superannuation firm quickly realised these quick fixes were only temporary advantages – and they weren’t addressing the right issues.
“Unfortunately, we weren’t ready to listen at the start. Our people started telling us, 'this is terrible, this is not working, I can’t get my job done.' We’re not responding to the right problem and not listening to our members,” explained McPhee, during the panel discussion. We had to think about the thing that can actually drive our innovation which is our people.”
So, they started their people transformation by listening – for 18 months. They helped staff reflect on what was holding them back from making changes, so they could address these in meaningful ways. They found that although people had the right skills, tools and mindset, they got “sucked back into a system that didn’t support that kind of behaviour. Or there were processes or a lack of time that derail their ability to think. People were feeling pressured to meet deadlines, or experienced ways of working that didn’t allow time to think,” McPhee said.
Her team quickly realised that they needed to address the whole system. “We’re having to address all parts of the system very gently and bring people along that journey. It is really hard and really slow. And it’s very intuitive. And you have to make sure to do the right thing next, rather than saying this is what we’re going to do by the end of the year. It is often a lot of deep listening and changing at the pace people are willing to change,” McPhee said.
Thriving through the mess
Adaptive challenges are uncomfortable and messy. Making progress on solving them comes with loss and often takes a long time. But meaningful impact is possible when leaders take the time to diagnose and confront problems, acknowledge the mess and the loss and approach them with curiosity and empathy.
“The work of leadership is incredibly hard. Adaptive challenges take time, they require learning and unlearning, they’re going to be frustrating. And sometimes you don’t get to the answer the way you thought you were going to get to it. So, if you are going to do this work, you need to have a clear sense of why you’re doing it and the capacity to stick with it and stay in it,” says Ms Chipungu.
The Academy of Adaptive Leadership at UNSW is a hub of adaptive leadership scholarship and practice serving the Indo-Pacific region. The Advanced Adaptive Leadership Program will provide participants with practical skills to assess difficult situations, capitalise on opportunities and create meaningful impact. Developed in partnership between AGSM and UNSW Canberra, the program will be held in Sydney from 27–30 November 2023 and in Canberra from 4–7 December 2023.