Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Technical or Adaptive?

As a leader, are you engaged in technical or adaptive work? was Ron Heifetz (1994) who focused attention on the concept of an adaptive challenge.  An adaptive challenge is a problem situation for which solutions lie outside current ways of operating.  This is in stark contrast to a technical problem for which the know-how already exists.  This distinction has resonance for educational reform.  Put simply, resolving a technical problem is a management issue; tackling adaptive challenges, however, requires leadership.  Often, we try to solve technical problems with adaptive processes or more commonly force technical solutions onto adaptive problems.  ...

Almost by definition, adaptive challenges demand learning, as progress here requires new ways of thinking and operating.  In these instances, it is 'people who are the problem', because an effective response to an adaptive challenge is almost always beyond the current competence of those involved.  Inevitably, this is threatening and often the prospect of adaptive work generates heat and resistance. 

Mobilizing people to meet adaptive challenges is at the heart of leadership practice.  In the short term, leadership helps people meet an immediate challenge.  In the medium to long term, leadership generates capacity to enable people to meet an ongoing stream of adaptive challenges.  Ultimately, adaptive work requires us to reflect on the moral purpose by which we seek to thrive and demands diagnostic enquiry into the realities we face that threaten the realization of those purposes. 

From: Every School a Great School by David Hopkins
Published by: McGraw Hill


  1. adaptive challenges demand learning - This is the critical component of all of our work. As we move forward to create K-12 connections I foresee that we have lots to learn and many messy, ambiguous, challenging moments ahead; however, this is as it should be. Adaptive challenges are beyond or current competence, but through leadership and a clear vision of student success we can create new knowledge.

  2. Hi Theresa,

    I agree with what you've said but I wonder what this means for us as leaders. Adaptive challenges can cause uncertainty - and other responses - among staff members. How do we as leaders, manage this? What skills do we need to manage it?

  3. In response to anonymous, I agree that these changes can cause uncertainty in staff, but if we can put in the context of high student achievement and student success, and also relate it to staff strengths it can be put in a positive lens. For me this goes back to building positive relationships and developing trust with staff members. Empowering staff is very important, and we are not going to have everyone on board, however we need to keep the vision and constantly work towards it

  4. I see that adaptive challenges, even with bumps and hurdles, will ultimately lead to increased student engagement. This goal might help some staff members to persevere with the challenges and hopefully become the engines that drive forward. Ideally, more teachers will jump onto the train (even if they are scared to) when they see the increase in student engagement. This sounds ideal but realistically this process is slow and needs leadership. How to push this train forward without having all the necessary knowledge is definitely a challenge to our leadership!

  5. Me again.

    I agree with everyone's comments.....but I was really struck by this statement in the original posting:

    "In these instances, it is 'people who are the problem', because an effective response to an adaptive challenge is almost always beyond the current competence of those involved."

    This is pretty significant. Theresa's comment that learning is demanded certainly addresses the issue. However, I'm thinking, what are the identifiable skills that I need in order to manage adaptive challenges. It causes me to wonder if I have the competence as a leader.

  6. It causes me to wonder as well, but I have confidence in the ability of people to work together to problem-solve and create innovative ways of managing complex situations. I think the most important skill is to shape a shared vision about student success and continue to keep that as the central focus of every encounter. So, it is a matter of designing-down for me - Where do we want to be? Where are we currently? and What seem the most promising approaches given what we know at this moment. I think we need to encourage a spirit of inquiry, a willingness to risk and the courage to question and challenge the status quo. I think optimism and faith in our colleagues is also essential.

  7. In reflecting on Anonymous's question about
    "what are the identifiable skills..."; in my experience, solutions to Adaptive Challenges have be based "gut-feeling" or the idea of "intutitive leadership".

    I wonder about the connection between intutive leadership and adaptive challenges.

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