|Subject Terms:||Strategic management|
|Classification Codes:||9190: US|
2200: Managerial skills
|Copyright Executive Excellence, Inc. Dec 1998|
LEADERS TODAY FACE adaptive challenges. Changes in societies, markets, customers, competition, and technology around the globe are forcing them to clarify their values, develop new strategies, and learn new ways of operating. Often the toughest task for leaders is mobilizing people to do adaptive work.
Adaptive work is required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge. We see adaptive challenges every day at every levelwhen companies restructure or reengineer, develop or implement strategy, or merge businesses. We see adaptive challenges when marketing has difficulty working with operations, when cross-functional teams don't work well, or when senior executives complain that they can't execute effectively. Adaptive problems are often systemic problems with no ready answers.
Mobilizing an organization to adapt its behaviors to thrive in new business environment is critical. Without such change, any company today would falter. Getting people to do adaptive work is the mark of leadership. Yet for most senior executives, providing leadership is difficult. Why? We see two reasons. First, to make change happen, executives have to break a long-standing behavior pattern of their own: providing leadership in the form of solutions. Many executives reach their positions of authority by virtue of their competence in taking responsibility and solving problems. But when a company faces an adaptive challenge, the focus of responsibility for problem solving resides not in the executive suite but in the collective intelligence of employees at all levels, who need to use one another as resources, often across boundaries, and learn their way to those solutions.
Second, adaptive change is distressing for people going through it. They need to take on new roles, new relationships, new values, new behaviors, and new approaches to work. Many employees are ambivalent about the efforts and sacrifices required of them. They often look to the senior executive to take problems off their shoulders. But those expectations have to be unlearned. Rather than fulfilling the expectation that they will provide answers, leaders have to ask tough questions. Rather than protecting people from outside threats, leaders should allow them to feel the pinch of reality to stimulate them to adapt. Instead of orienting people to their current roles, leaders must disorient them so that new relationships can develop. Instead of quelling conflict, leaders have to draw the issues out. Instead of maintaining norms, leaders have to challenge "the way we do business" and help others distinguish immutable values from historical practices that must go.
Six Guiding Principles
Drawing on our experience with managers from around the world, we offer six principles for leading adaptive work:
1. Get on the balcony. Business leaders have to view patterns as if they were on a balcony. It does them no good to be swept up in the field of action. Leaders have to identify struggles over values and power, patterns of work avoidance, and the many other reactions to change.
2. Identify the adaptive challenge. When businesses cannot learn quickly to adapt to new challenges, they are likely to face their own form of extinction. Leaders need to understand themselves, their people, and the potential sources of conflict.
3. Regulate distress. Adaptive work generates distress. Before putting people to work on challenges for which there are no ready solutions, a leader must realize that people can learn only so much so fast, and maintain a productive level of tension and motivate people without disabling them.
Although leadership demands a deep understanding of the pain of change-the fears and sacrifices associated with major readjustment-it also requires the ability to hold steady and maintain the tension.
A leader has to have the emotional capacity to tolerate uncertainty, frustration and pain. He has to raise tough questions without getting too anxious himself. Employees, colleagues, and customers will carefully observe verbal and nonverbal cues to a leader's ability to hold steady and tackle tasks ahead.
4. Maintain disciplined attention. Different people with the same organization bring different experiences, assumptions, values, beliefs and habits to their work. This diversity is valuable because innovation and learning are the products of differences. No one learns anything without being open to contrasting points of view.
As Jan Carlzon, CEO of Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), told us, "The work of the leader is to get conflict out into the open and use it as a source of creativity."
Because work avoidance is rampant in organizations, a leader has to counteract distractions that prevent people from dealing with adaptive issues. People need leadership to help them maintain their focus on tough questions. Disciplined attention is the currency of leadership.
5. Give work back to the people. Everyone has special access to information that comes from his or her particular vantage point. Everyone may see different needs and opportunities. People who sense early changes in the marketplace are often at the periphery, but the organization will thrive if it can bring that information to bear on tactical and strategic decisions. When people do not act on their special knowledge, businesses fail to adapt.
All too often, people expect senior management to meet market challenges for which they themselves are responsible. Indeed, the greater and the more persistent distresses that accompany adaptive work, the worse such dependence becomes. People tend to become passive, and senior managers who pride themselves on being problem solvers take decisive action. That behavior restores equilibrium in the short term, but ultimately leads to complacency and habits of work avoidance that shield people from responsibility, pain and the need to change.
6. Protect voices of leadership. Giving a voice to all people is the foundation of a firm that is willing to experiment and learn. But, in fact, whistle-blowers, creative deviants, and other such original voices routinely get smashed and silenced.
People speaking beyond their authority usually feel self-conscious and sometimes have to generate "too much" passion to get themselves geared up for speaking out. Of course, that often makes it harder for them to communicate effectively. They pick the wrong time and place, and often bypass proper channels of communication and lines of authority. But, buried inside a poorly packaged interjection may lie an important lesson. To toss it out is to lose valuable information and discourage a potential leader.
Leadership as Learning
Many efforts to transform organizations through mergers and acquisitions, restructuring, reengineering, and strategy falter because managers fail to grasp the requirements of adaptive work. They treat adaptive challenges like technical problems that can be solved by toughminded senior executives.
The prevailing notion that leadership consists of having a vision and aligning people with that vision is bankrupt because it continues to treat adaptive situations as if they were technical: The authority figure is supposed to divine where the company is going, and people are supposed to follow. Leadership is reduced to a combination of grand knowing and salesmanship.
Such a perspective reveals a basic misconception about the way businesses succeed in addressing adaptive challenges. Adaptive situations are hard to define and resolve precisely because they demand the work and responsibility of all members. They are not amenable to solutions provided by leaders; adaptive solutions require members to take responsibility for the problems that face them.
Leadership has to take place every day. It cannot be the responsibility of the few, a rare event, or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.[Author note]