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Organizational Change Management

Technical and Adaptive Challenges Within Leadershipchange management

The purpose of this discussion is to assess the differences between technical and adaptive challenges within leadership and organizational change management.  To understand these differences the following topics are reviewed.

  • What is a technical challenge
  • What is an adaptive challenge
  • How does one distinguish technical versus adaptive challenges
  • Why is it important to know the difference

To understand and create the framework for organizational learning, literature from different perspectives, such as organizational psychology, development, theories, and strategies is presented.  Reviewed topics for this discussion will consist of leadership theories applicable to Organizational Psychology (OP) and the internal skills leaders must develop to lead effectively.

  • Leadership, what is leadership
  • The difference between authority and leadership
  • The important of knowing the difference between authority and leadership
  • Leadership theories, strategies, and skills

Technical versus Adaptive Challenges

Technical problems are identifiable and solved, these problems are mechanical.  Adaptive problems require profound personal change.  People on an individual level need to make personal changes, their hearts, minds, and eventually his and her opinions and individual thought process.  Adaptive change is a social problem that affects the cultural behavior of the group.

One of the biggest challenges for leadership is to learn how not to treat adaptive issues as technical problems.  Technical changes are

  • Identifiable, the problem can not be denied
  • Have cut and dry solutions
  • Can be resolved by leadership
  • Requires minimal change
  • People are less resistant to technical solutions
  • Solutions are implemented expediently

Adaptive changes are:

  • Difficult to identify, problems are easily denied
  • No cut and dry solution, solutions require changes in values, beliefs, relationships, and roles
  • Leadership cannot resolve the problem, problems are solved by the individuals
  • Requires profound change, in numerous places; usually across organizational boundaries
  • People are resistant acknowledging a need for change
  • Solutions require exploration and does not require technical implementation

The challenge for leadership is to identify what needs to change and develop a method to create change.  When the issues are identified one can examine the adaptive challenges involved in creating the desired change.

According to Heifetz (1994) leadership is used when mobilizing other people to do what Heifetz refers to as “adaptive work.”  Adaptive work means clarifying conflict in values, bridging gaps between the values that the people stand for and attempt to change the current conditions under which people operate.  Heifetz states that when one has a problem or a challenge for which there is no technical solution or remedy, a problem that an authoritative figure cannot solve because the answers are not there, that problem requires adaptive work.

Leadership and Organizational Change Management

The critical component for success is recognizing the leadership skills necessary to implement change processes:

  • Identify the adaptive challenge
  • Identify the skills and behaviors needed to implement the change
  • Involve others with accountability and responsibility
  • Step back, look down from the balcony, recognize the pro’s and con’s

“To lead is to live dangerously because when leadership counts, when you lead people through difficult change, you challenge what people hold dear, their daily habits, tools, loyalties, and ways of thinking, with nothing more to offer perhaps than a possibility” (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002, p. 2).

Leadership strategies may rely on responding to challenges with different approaches.  How does leadership inspire and lead people through organizational change, Heifetz (1994) discusses the “modern ballet” while leading change in today’s society when authority is limited and goals are unclear.  Heifetz dissects leadership theories and identifies the differences between leadership and authority.  There are those people in positions of authority that do not exercise leadership.  There are those people who are not in authoritative positions that exercise leadership daily.  Possessing authority can limit ones capacity to lead and create change.  People in positions of authority are expected to maintain the “cultural norms.”  People look to those in authoritative positions to direct the workforce.  People look for answers from authoritative figures, and this is the difference between authority and leadership.  Leaders ask the questions that allow the people to search and find answers on their own, leaders create change.

With or without authority exercising leadership is difficult.  Challenging people with fact is necessary for one to understand a need for change.  Whereas people are normally resistant to technical change, adaptive change, personal behavioral changes, are especially challenging.

When someone is asked how he would behave under certain circumstances, the answer he usually gives is his espoused theory of action for that situation.  This is the theory of action to which he gives allegiance, and which upon request, he communicates to others.  However, the theory that actually governs his actions is this theory-in-use (Argyris and Schon, 1974, p. 6-7).

 Leadership Strategies and Theories

To lead people through a change process it is necessary to understand change theories and strategies.  Leadership requires a continued learning strategy.  Leaders must learn to engage people and for adaptive changes to be successful leaders must know how to communicate, educate, and facilitate the desired changes to the people.  One learning strategy as presented by Argyris and Schon is single-loop, double loop learning.

When the error detected and corrected permits the organization to carry on its present policies or achieve its present objectives, then that error-and-correction process is single-loop learning. Single-loop learning is like a thermostat that learns when it is too hot or too cold and turns the heat on or off. The thermostat can perform this task because it can receive information (the temperature of the room) and take corrective action. Double-loop learning occurs when error is detected and corrected in ways that involve the modification of an organization’s underlying norms, policies and objectives (Argyris & Schon, 1978, p. 2-3).

The difference between Argyris’ theory and that of experiential learning theories and strategies from Dewey or Lewin is that one does not need to make a mistake to reflect upon it.  Reflecting upon and learning from past mistakes and failures is a crucial element in the learning process but Argyris theory in action allows one to learn in the “here and now” by thinking critically while observing current events.

Engaging the people in the problem is another development strategy for adaptive change.  Leadership sets the direction, mission, vision, and goals.  Adaptive change is not technical work to be successful the people must take ownership and engage in the process.  Communication is a vital component in moving this change process forward.  If people do not engage in conversation regarding conflict and change there is no learning.  Discussion regarding different points of view and opinions are necessary to identify the behavioral issues that require change.  Discussion is the social change engine necessary to implement change, establishing focus groups is a forum in which dialogue can begin.

Adaptive leadership needs continued learning experiences to make the organization ready for change.  Adaptive leaders drive positive change and organizational success.  These leaders possess a skill set very different from managers or other members of the leadership team.  An adaptive leader focuses less on how to solve a problem and emphasizes more focused on the change that can be created from employees capable of implementing his or her individual change.

According to Daft (2008), “Followers want to be led, not controlled.  They also want leaders to create an environment that enables people to contribute their best.  Three specific ways leaders enhance the abilities and contributions of followers are by offering clarity of direction, giving honest, constructive feedback, and provide coaching” (p. 217).

When an adaptive leader has developed solutions it is the responsibility of the leader to convince and persuade the employees that they are capable of meeting the objectives.  The leader needs to know how to make the employees function and work in a collaborative fashion and how to motivate the employees to succeed as a team.  To achieve this goal and to complete this task the leader must have a strategic plan in place.

Another strategy to develop this employee potential is supportive coaching that involves helping others create his or her own solutions.   This method of coaching as described by Daft (2008) will “facilitate follower learning by asking questions, allowing the individual to learn through trial and error, and serving as a resource for the follower’s journey of discovery and development” (p. 216).

Acknowledging the need for change the execution of the strategic plan involves building trust, motivating the workforce, and supporting the employees.  To achieve this goal, the framework of OP proposes the need for person-based theories of leadership.

In the 1930s Kurt Lewin proposed that the framework of leadership is based on a leader’s decision-making behavior.  Lewin argued that there are three leadership types that will influence this behavior, autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire.  Autocratic leaders make decisions without consulting their teams.  Democratic leaders allow the team to provide input before making a decision.  Laissez-Faire leaders do not interfere they allow the team to make the decision.  In addition, the individual’s perception of leadership will depend on a leadership theory that will influence the decision making behavior.  Several leadership theories and styles discussed during this program including the great man theory, trait theory, and behavioral theory.  For the purpose of this discussion contingency and transformational theories are discussed.

The Fielder contingency model is a leadership theory developed by Fred Fiedler (1964).  This theory is the realization that leadership styles needs to change contingent upon the circumstance of the current situation.  This style of leadership requires a flexible, adaptive leader who understands when he or she needs to implement a task-oriented versus people-oriented style of management.  When dealing with technical or adaptive changes knowledge of the situational factors and the behaviors of the group is crucial in determining what action to take.

Burns (1978) modeled a transformational leadership theory of a leader who inspires people toward the same vision, mission, and goals.  Essentially a trait theory-based theory, the transformational leader has specific qualities and skills, such as emotional intelligence, excellent communication skills and the ability to inspire trust among the group.  Transformational leaders do not fear using unconventional methods to ensure the positive development of the group.  According to Burns,

Transformational leadership occurs when one or more persons engage with others in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality. That people can be lifted into their better selves is the secret of transforming leadership and the moral and practical theme of this work (1978).

Leadership Skills

Followers expect Leaders to create a vision, develop a strategy, and lead the people.  To be successful, Robert Katz (1955) identified three skills required for accomplished leadership.  Conceptual skills, the ability to work with hypothetical situations, ideas, and concepts that have the potential to re-create an organization, human skill, people skills that allow one to create bonds and trusts when dealing with others, and technical sills, knowledge of job, and task-oriented requirements.

Different scenarios and organizational cultures will require different skills in a leader.  Adjusting to different settings and norms requires knowing what skills are necessary to adjust to unfamiliar challenges.  A valuable skill set that leaders can possess is the ability to learn from personal failures.  Knowing that one has failed will allow one to face his or her failures as a process improvement model.  Leaders who possess good communication skills can educate and maintain the values of the organization by leading the people in the correct direction.  A good leader needs to diagnose correctly the current environment to which one needs to adapt.  The ability to think out of the box and initiate a deliberate change process is the greatest skill set a leader can possess.

As an OP consultant or an agent of change it is important to understand the adaptability required to help promote positive change.  OP helps an organization to understand and learn individual and group behaviors in an organization and what environmental changes can disrupt the cultural norm within the organization.

Organizations can use OP to create positive and productive work environments that will increase efficiency and effectiveness that successfully will move the organization forward.  The key component of OP, and this discussion is understanding the difference between a technical problem and an adaptive problem.  There are times when problems are just technical and mechanical that an expert can just fix for instance, the lock is broken, call a locksmith.  This is the factor that will determine if a problem is technical or adaptive.  Can the expert fix the problem or is this problem going to require the assistance of everyone involved.  Will this problem require the engagement of employees at all levels and will the people need to change the existing culture and how they do business.

Developing these leadership skills will decrease the difficulty of creating change in the organization.  Understanding the organizational structure, climate, and culture will allow the leader the ability to recognize the importance of person-based theories of leadership versus standard situational theories of behaviors in the workplace.

The responsibility of an OP is to act as an agent of change.  This role requires unconditional neutrality, adaptability, and the ability to responsibly educate those within the organization.  Possessing the necessary skill set to develop leadership is critical.  Leadership skills, such as mentoring, coaching and development, and facilitation are also the required OP skills needed to assist leaders in producing a safe, healthy, and productive workplace.

Veronica Emilia Nuzzolo, MBA, MAOP

Argyris, C. (1974) Behind the front page, San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
Argyris, C., & Schön, D. (1978) Organizational learning: A theory of action perspective, Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley
Burns, M., (1978)  Transformational Leadership Theory, Retrieved, http://www.leadership-central.com/burns-transformational-leadership-theory.html#axzz1uwY9Dsj8
Daft, R., & Lane, P., The Leadership Experience, Australia; Mason, OH:  South-Western Cengage Learning, 5th Edition, c2011.
Fiedler, F. E. (1964). A contingency model of leadership effectiveness. In L. Berkowitz (ed), Advances in experimental social psychology, NY: Academic press.
Katz, R. L., Harvard Business Review, Sept-Oct 1974, pp. 90-102.
Heifetz, R. & Linsky, M., Leadership on the Line, Harvard Business School Press, 2002

How to cite this article:
Nuzzolo, V. E., (2016). Technical and Adaptive Challenges Within Leadership. Retrieved from, https://risetoshinetoday.org/technical-and-adaptive-challenges-within-leadership-and-organizational-change-management/



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