Every leader knows that her duty as a leader is to help everyone in the organization define the business problems faced by the organization in a way that allows for a possible solution, helps the organization learn so it will not repeat the problem, and institute processes to insure that the solution is executed properly so it is most effective.
Every problem is certainly different, but Ron Heifitz of Harvard has a very useful way of classifying business problems in to two categories – Adaptive business problems and Technical business problems . This article explains each type of problem and having identified the problem as Adaptive or Technical, lays out an approach for addressing the problem.
Before we define the problem as either Adaptive or Technical, it is imperative for a leader to ask employees at all levels of the organization to help identify and define the problem. In fact, leaders have to know how others think of a problem before they seek to tell them how to solve the problem. When people define a problem differently, and there is no alignment in the organization about how to define the problem, serious mayhem will occur if senior management tries to impose a problem on employees who define the problem in a way that suggests that senior management’s “solution” is way off base.
Technical business problems or challenges are those that are already within our problem solving expertise; procedures, norms, systems, methods are already known and well tested. Technical challenges are best handled by giving authority to the expert to implement â no meetings are necessary, no consultation, no learning is required. Adaptive challenges are not the same as technological challenges. Static environments can do well with just authoritative expertise. Adaptive environments need something more than authoritative expertise. They need adaptive leadership. Technical challenges invoke a problem solving response.
Adaptive challenges are those where we do not know how to solve the problem and in fact, we are the problem. Adaptive challenges require people to learn new ways, change behavior, achieve new understandings, see the world through new filters and people do all of these things in a collective way very slowly. The problem in an adaptive challenge is that the problem is in the people, the society, the culture, the mores and we must change the people to figure out how to solve the problem. Meetings, participatory leadership, consultation, research, development of new paradigms are appropriate for this type of problem.
Confusing adaptive challenges with technical challenges is a big mistake. Most business problems come bundled - they are part technical and part adaptive in nature. (Heart disease, obesity; health problems, for example are both technical and adaptive challenges.) Drug abuse is primarily an adaptive problem. Government policy can only be a partial solution to adaptive business problems when they use “technical approaches”, like drug interdiction events like bombing Columbia and drug abuse education by teachers who do not know very much about drug abuse.
As you can see, first identify a problem as technical, requiring only an expert to solve, or adaptive, that will require significant learning within the organization and by the people of the organization to figure out how to solve the problem. When a problem is technical, and people want to dwell on it, ignore them and get the expert in to fix it. But, when a problem is adaptive, be sure to include many others in defining the problem so that the organization can learn the root causes of the problem, figure out or create the best solutions, and this will dramatically improve the capacity of the organization to succeed.