Let’s first take a look at the types of challenges we face as human beings:
Technical Challenges: These are pretty straightforward. You can rely on past experiences and existing knowledge, skills and resources to solve it or you can easily obtain what you need to solve it. For example, if you need to get a new phone or computer, you are able to research the features you need to determine what is a good fit for your needs. Or if they are broken, you can fairly easily learn how to fix yourself or find someone with that expertise.
Adaptive Challenges: These are far more complex. In fact, you can’t use existing thinking and knowledge to solve them. You are entering into uncharted territory. Adaptive challenges force us to let go of what is familiar, tried and true and they evoke a sense of loss and discomfort. One of the ways we know we are dealing with an adaptive challenge is that you’ll have almost a visceral reaction at the thought of doing it.
Here’s an example: I could put you through a communications training on how to have difficult conversations – provide templates, conversation starters and a framework. If for you, that’s a technical challenge, those tips and resources would be helpful and you would be off and running. But, if for you, the thought of having to apply those templates and framework and actually have the difficult conversation elicits anxiety and you feel like you want to throw up, that’s an adaptive challenge for you. All the skills and tools in the world won’t help you until you address the adaptive aspect of the challenge first.
The reality is that most of the challenges we face have both a technical and adaptive component. We can certainly gain new knowledge and build skills- and that will be helpful. The overwhelming majority of what gets in our way is the adaptive part. And until we address the adaptive nature of the change, we will be stuck.
“The single biggest failure of leadership is to treat adaptive challenges like technical problems” Heifetz & Linsky (Cambridge Leadership Associates)
The rate of change and disruption of this VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) puts us in a space of tremendous adaptive change. We have to get messy and do the work necessary to effectively navigate adaptive change if we’re going to be able to thrive in this new reality.
Adapted from Salveo Partners, LLC