Managing complex challenges: why even the best technical solutions are often not enough

When I wrote this blog entry some time ago from my hotel room in London I was preparing for an implementation workshop as part of a large change program. My client was a large financial services organization, and I was working with one particular function on changing how they operated. The “burning platform” for this transformation was blazing brightly. Some severe and publicly visible mistakes had happened in the recent past, and everyone was aware that change was necessary. We had many experts on the project team who knew how to solve the technical problems and build solutions. So, implementing the necessary change should be easy, shouldn’t it?

Technical experts are often great at solving a problem. There are experts for broken cars, broken legs, or broken IT systems. There are also experts for corporate tax, accounting, and valuing financial instruments. In most cases, when there is a clear technical problem, it is best to find an expert solution to it.

Unfortunately, the task of leading an organization does not involve only technical problems. There are some, like implementing a new accounting standard or upgrading an IT platform. But many business problems, like the transformation at my current client, require that people fundamentally change their behaviors and mindsets – and, in these situations a mere technical solution is often not enough. The reason: In such conditions, the possible solutions are ill-defined and discovering them will require questioning existing norms, values, and behaviors.

Dr. Ronald Heifetz of Harvard describes the difference in approach between adaptive and technical challenges.

Ronald Heifetz (Founding Director of the Center for Public Leadership and the King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School) calls conditions like these adaptive challenges. They happen frequently. Changes in societies, markets, customers, competition, and technology around the globe are forcing organizations to clarify their values, develop new strategies, and learn new ways of operating. Often the toughest task for leaders in effecting these changes is mobilizing people throughout the organization to do the adaptive work.

Adaptive challenges are people related challenges. When mangers try to solve them purely with an appeal to the mind, to logic, and to the intellect, they are likely to fail. In order to master an adaptive challenge, a leader must tolerate some level of anxiety within the organization and then focus on mobilizing people to figure out solutions and adapt new behaviors on their own.

Source: The Work of Leadership by Ronald A. Heifetz and Donald L. Laurie, HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Leadership

The tasks of adaptive leadership — whether you are a line manager or a consultant — are treacherous. Heifetz divides them into two distinct phases. First is the emergency phase, when the leader’s task is to stabilize the situation and buy time. Second is the adaptive phase, when you tackle the underlying causes of the challenge and build the capacity to thrive in a new reality.

The adaptive phase is especially dangerous: People put enormous pressure on the leader to respond to their anxieties with authoritative certainty, providing a straight forward solution to the challenge at hand, even if doing so means overselling what you know and discounting what you don’t. When you as a leader push staff to make deeper necessary but uncomfortable adaptive changes and operate beyond their current norms or expertise, you can face strong resistance, and people may start attacking you as a reaction.

For many leaders, adaptive work can also feel counter-intuitive. Rather than providing solutions, they must ask tough questions and leverage employees’ collective intelligence. Instead of maintaining norms, the adaptive leader must challenge the way the company does business. And rather than quelling conflict, leaders need to draw issues out and let people feel the sting of reality.

That may hurt, but it must be. „You know the adage People resist change“, Heifetz writes in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. „It is not really true. People are not stupid. People love change when they know it is a good thing. No one gives back a winning lottery ticket. What people resist is not change per se, but loss. When change involves real or potential loss, people hold on to what they have and resist the change.”

To sustain momentum through a period of difficult change, Heifetz recommends to find ways to remind people of the positive vision that makes the current angst worthwhile.

And one must also look after themselves: „You stay alive in the practice of leadership by reducing the extent to which you become the target of people’s frustrations. The best way to stay out of range is to think constantly about giving the work back to the people who need to take responsibility. Place the work within and between the factions who are faced with the challenge, and tailor your interventions so they are unambiguous and have a context.” (Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky: Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading)