Leadership Essentials #1: Identifying Challenges Correctly.

We often think that problems are there to be fixed, so the faster we handle a challenge or a problem, the better.  This is not quite right.  Leaders face lots of challenges but they often misunderstand the types of challenges they face. They often mistake adaptive challenges for technical challenges because their tendency is to want to fix the problem, and to do so quickly.  But adaptive challenges are not ones we can just fix.  The misidentification of the type of challenge before us can lead to poor leadership decisions that fail to address the problems at hand in the right way.  So, we need to know the the main types of challenges leaders face and ways to identify them correctly.  

Leaders typically face two types of challenges: technical challenges and adaptive challenges. The distinction between technical and adaptive challenges is a central tenet of the Adaptive Leadership approach pioneered by Ron Heifetz from Harvard University. Identifying these types of challenges correctly can help us solve the right kinds of problems in the right way.  It saves time and it can help us get the results we want. 

In technical challenges, we have a clear problem and a clear solution.  The skills to address the challenge are present in the organization or close by.  We can also identify an expert who can address the problem.  If the faucet in my kitchen is leaking, I call a plumber.  Another example is when a company’s employees complain that they experience frequent computer interruptions.  In this case we call IT and they can fix the problem.      

Adaptive challenges are more complex, and they take time to address.  The problem we face is not clear and it cannot be solved by the leader, by an expert, or through the normal avenues of solving problems.  There are no silver bullets for adaptive challenges.  These require substantial change in the assumptions, values, perceptions and behaviors of everyone involved. They require a sort of cultural change in the group and a period of adjustment.  Adaptive challenges are also outside of the comfort zone of everyone involved and everyone involved has learning to do. Such challenges raise the temperature and it is a leader's job to regulate the heat in the organization so the right changes take place for the organization to adapt.  We need heat, but not too much.   

For example, think of the problems a family must face when they have an elderly parent who now needs extra care and possibly to have to go to an elderly care facility.  In this case, the family is about to experience a change that is scary because it comes with some loss.  The elderly parent will lose the comfort of living at home and will have to rely on strangers to take care of them.  The children will lose the comfort of going home and seeing their mom and dad in familiar and safe environment.  They all need to change and have to adapt to the new situation.  Various people will play a role in this process and will need to learn and make changes: the family members, the elderly parent, the care givers, and possibly others.  All of the people involved, and especially the family will need to change their everyday routines, will have to deal with their emotions and values, and they will have to adapt to the new situation to make it work. This will take time, good communication, and a lot of effort. 

Another example is a hospital having nurses or pharmacists challenge illegible or dangerous prescriptions for patients.  We cannot just announce that from now on nurses and pharmacists have to challenge such prescriptions and then expect the change to take place.  Such a change will require much work from all involved.  Nurses and pharmacists will need to confront their emotions, values, and their habit of deferring to doctors in such matters. The hospital will have to show that it is safe for them to question a doctor's prescription. Doctors will need to do some work to adapt to being challenged occasionally. In some way all those involved will have to redefine together what it is to be a nurse, a pharmacist, and a doctor. A leader’s job in this case is not to fix the problem but to facilitate such a change and to help the different parties involved adapt.   

We need to remember that much of leadership takes place when we are faced with adaptive challenges. Moreover, many challenges will be a combination of technical and adaptive elements, there will be things we can fix quickly and others that will require us to confront and work on and negotiate the harder stuff: habits, values, emotions, assumptions, and beliefs.

Teams and organizations, which respond to challenges well, adapt faster than ones that do not.  The ones that adapt faster, thrive. Careful leadership training can help leaders identify challenges correctly and teach them strategies to address them effectively.  This can enhance the team's or organization's ability to adapt and to thrive.   


For a free one-on-one leadership coaching session and to discuss how we can help you or your team, email Tony Coumoundouros: Tony@ilead.consulting.

iLEAD Impact Leadership

Making Good Leaders Great