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Adaptive Work

June 19, 2009

Much of what passes for leadership theory these days emphasizes what leaders do or should do, rather than how they do it. That’s a big improvement on the days when the literature focused on who leaders were and what traits made them great. But if we accept that anyone can lead, and that great organizations need good leaders at every level, we need models that help us develop the skills necessary to carry this off successfully.

Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky (Leadership on the Line, 2002; The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, 2009) make an important distinction between the technical work most leaders have to master to attain credibility and the adaptive work required to secure commitment and affect genuine and lasting change. Adaptive work requires leaders to manage the holding environment in which people encounter issues and challenges.  By moderating the level of anxiety people feel, leaders can facilitate change by helping people identify opportunities to engage and adjust their expectations and actions to the new situation in which they find themselves.

This process is not necessarily linear. Progress may come in fits and starts, with setbacks occurring along the way. Maintaining progress requires a plan, but that plan must be flexible enough to accommodate unexpected shifts and shocks by encouraging attention and adjustment.  The way a leader addresses issues and asks questions has a bigger affect on attenuating anxiety about change than the specific actions undertaken.  As I see it, the following elements of a model of adaptive work are not so much a series of steps but a way of being with the issues and those affected by them that emphasizes listening, observing, learning, understanding, and teaching:

  • Anticipate — Look ahead. What changes will the future require, and how must we prepare for them?
  • Appreciate — Be alert. What conditions mark the change, what should we watch for, and what could go wrong?
  • Acknowledge — Display empathy.  How can you communicate your appreciation of the issues and challenges in a way that builds confidence and encourages commitment?
  • Ask or acquire — Engage. What information will we need and who can we trust to provide it?  How can we gather information in a way that builds trust rather than breeding suspicion?
  • Align — Orient toward desired results. Given the uncertainties, how best can we use the resources available to affect the change we desire?
  • Advise — Inform intent. What do our partners and others need to know from us to help us achieve our goals?
  • Act (with attention and agility) — Remain alert and go with the flow. How can we ensure that new or unexpected developments do not escape our attention? How can we facilitate sufficient freedom of movement without sacrificing progress?
  • Assess — Reflect on process and progress. How will we know we’re on the right track, and what feedback have we received?
  • Adjust — Fix things now for next time. What changes in our expectations or actions must we accept to accommodate future conditions?
  • Adapt or adopt — Accept and embrace the change.  How can we use the new situation or our response to make things better for ourselves and others?

This process allows us to continuously refine our approach to meeting the goals we set while maintaining the capacity to modify our response as conditions change or we acquire new information or abilities. Using this approach, we can acquire, practice, and teach all of the leadership skills required to affect adaptative change.

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