Adaptive Leadership – Diagnose the system

This blog is about my journey through a text called ‘The Practice of Adaptive Leadership’, (Heifetz, Grashow, Linsky, 2009). 

Chapter 4 looks at the fact that the system rewards what exists today. Many of the people within the organisational system have progressed to leadership within the existing system of today (or if  they are a newer recruit, have succeeded by normalising to the existing system) and are therefore reluctant to change what is for what might be needed tomorrow.

Heifetz and Linsky describe this as being “trained prisoners of the structure”.

What happens then is the trained prisoners miss the adaptive challenge. They just cannot see past their existing environment and structures. In psychological terms, if the need for change or the adaptive challenge is not ‘object’ to them then  they are ‘subject’ to it and basically disempowered to effectively manage the change required.

As John Gardner, former US Cabinet Secretary and founder of the Common Cause and Independent Sector says “[you] need some leaders to remain sufficiently independent to help [the system] change and grow”.

So firstly, to identify the adaptive challenge you need to look for the following unique characteristics.

  1. Input and output are not linear – your strategy is producing unintended consequences.
  2. Formal authority is insufficient – in your position you are not effective at creating the change you want to.
  3. Different factions each want different outcomes – one faction might perceive greater loss or less opportunity than another as a result of your proposed strategy.
  4. Previously highly successful protocols seem antiquated and no longer work for a new or changing challenge.

You then need to consciously overlay these characteristics with those of the system in which you operate. On the whole most of us operate in a system that is either NFP, private or public and Heifetz and Linsky suggest each has its own distinctive characteristics outlined below which may make them less adaptable.

  • NFP – Can be mission driven and can get caught up in seeking consensus.
  • Private – Often protect historically profitable business lines which may be diminishing as a competitive market place shifts.
  • Public – Commonly tend to be risk adverse and insulated from the pressure the market place applies to adapt.

This all adds to the cultural norms and forces of any one organisation or system you operate in. Heifetz and Linsky believe it is critical to identify these cultural norms through the folklore, rituals, norms and meeting protocols which either help change or stand in its way. It’s only in diagnosing the system this deeply that you are in a good position to adapt your strategies to achieve change in a more complex (and less technical) situation.

To make this more meaningful I’ve pulled out all of the scattered examples covered in Chapter 4 that might jog your thinking from ‘the balcony’ in relation to diagnosing the system you lead more effectively. Consider what the following elements say about the system you operate in:

  • Rituals such as birthdays, regular meetings, celebrating a big project
  • Recruitment and induction
  • Folklore stories – which ones re retold by who?
  • Dress code
  • Modes of problem solving and decision making
  • How people interact with each other
  • Sharing of ideas
  • What jokes are appropriate and funny
  • Who gets the floor in debates?
  • What performance is rewarded?
  • Tone when speaking to managers
  • Annual review process
  • Criteria for promotion
  • Employment structures, et contract terms , tenure etc
  • Remuneration and bonus structures
  • What’s believed to be necessary to get ahead in an organisation?
  • Taboo topics of discussion
  • Organisational chart/structures and reporting lines, board exposure etc.

Heifetz and Linsky have a series of questions to probe and think more consciously about these areas and what they may imply about your system and its stakeholders. I’d say definitely worth some reflection time if you are a leader in a system required to adapt, and let’s face it most of us are.

Next week is Chapter 5 and we’ll stick with diagnosis, but extend it beyond the system to the adaptive challenge at hand. See you then.

This blog is about my journey through a text called ‘The Practice of Adaptive Leadership’, (Heifetz, Grashow, Linsky, 2009). This is the seminal text in the Leaders Institute of SA’s flagship program the Governor’s Leadership Foundation (GLF). As Director of Program Development my role is to manage the Alumni program, develop programs and evolve the GLF to meet our mission of creating wiser leaders.


2 thoughts on “Adaptive Leadership – Diagnose the system

  1. Pingback: Resolving climate change paradoxes – do we really have the leadership courage? – greenmode

  2. Pingback: Leadership in a Changing Climate. Does anyone really have the courage to take it on? – greenmode

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