LabyrinthI picked up a copy of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky after hearing an enthusiastic review from the head of our local library. Skimming it, I recognized a gazillion truths from my work inside corporations and as a consultant to business, government and nonprofits. This week I decided to dive in deeper. Oh, dear. Right there in plain sight, the difference between technical and adaptive challenges, so clearly articulated. It drove me to reconsider the nature of a project I recently completed.

The client struggled with a simmering challenge between factions. Leaders threw a host of technical solutions at it. They tightened contract language, shifted accountability and redefined scope. At the core, however, there was a gap in values and leadership priorities. Not only did the two factions have different mindsets, both had been evolving their values and leadership priorities over time, thus only accentuating the gulf.

A year ago, the initial step we took together needed only two meetings. They wanted a shared vision, which they produced in relatively short order. After that we decided to tackle a structural component that had been causing problems: decision making. Specifically, who makes which decisions? We went through a short process to tease out decision points and assign ownership. They recognized the need for joint decision making areas and flagged those as well. In an efficient turn, they produced two new tools to guide partnership efforts going forward.

Six months later they called back. Trust had eroded. Tempers flared. Fingers pointed. “Can you come back and help with a bigger conversation?” After preliminary diagnosis I agreed, then spoke with all the key players. With anxiety levels so high, the real issues were ripe. However, the governing body that holds ultimate oversight was unaware of any problems.

My job was to facilitate constructive dialog. Retrospectively, I recognize several principles of adaptive leadership we constructively applied in that three-hour session:
* participants were forewarned that loss would be inevitable; some would not be happy with whatever decision was reached
* we generated multiple interpretations of the issue, reflecting differences of opinion
* both head (logic) and heart (emotions) were engaged
* the group defined its own intervention and next steps
* a critical technical correction was identified – the importance of involving the governing body immediately and until the issue ultimately was resolved

What would I do differently with the benefit of hindsight? Four things. 1) Leverage the book’s illustrations and language around loss. 2) Design thinking assignments to prompt self-reflection for the participants. 3) Lower expectations regarding meeting outcomes. It was unrealistic to think course-changing decisions could be arrived at in one session. (4) Imagine multiple possible scenarios in advance and play each out to its logical conclusion. Foreshadowing would have revealed additional potential next steps.

What now? The client is running a one-year experiment using modified roles, and the governing body is informed and involved. As for me, I’m diving into the second half of the book which invites leaders to see themselves as a system, then deploy. Systems thinking meets leadership; together they meet continuous improvement!

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