Dr Ronald Heifetz of the Center For Public Leadership at Harvard University is known for delineating a clear differentiation between what he calls ‘technical change’ (broadly speaking the type of change that addresses more tangible things such as products, procedures or processes) and ‘adaptive change’ (that which is more concerned with less tangible human aspects such as attitudes, thinking, beliefs, values, behavioural change).
Adaptive challenges, he says, have a different timeframe to technical problems. The latter might cause a high level of disturbance that will then trigger an organisational response, but since the organisation is typically already well equipped with relevant knowledge, cultural assumptions and capability to deal with such a challenge, a solution may quickly be found.
Adaptive challenges are different. Instead of being problems that might be solved rapidly with existing expertise, they require on-going experimentation, learning, behavioural and attitudinal change from multiple parts of the organisation. In this instance, appropriate leadership requires:
“…keeping people in the game over time through a sustained period of disequilibrium…keeping people operating in a productive zone of disturbance or discomfort…with compassion for the disturbance you’re causing people so that you’re operating within their capacity to learn and think creativity”
It’s also likely to be about being comfortable with ambiguity, asking the right questions rather than providing the solution, and an ongoing commitment to the longer-term vision. This is, after all, a battle for hearts and minds.