Adaptive Leadership–Continuous Change

Get insights in your inbox

All of us fall into clichéd phrases about the constancy and pervasiveness of change—yet our conceptual framework and management practices still view change as an exception. Most of our concepts, practices, and tools are geared to environments in which equilibrium is the normal condition and changes are the exception. Extreme, high-speed, high-change environments are just the opposite—change is the norm.

In extreme environments, equilibrium is the exception condition.

In such circumstances, change management is not an add-on procedure to a linear process temporarily in disequilibrium—change management is the heart of leadership.

Adaptation is the process of continuous change in contrast to the periodic discrete change process found in many organizations. The difference between beginner and expert skiers provides an analogy. The beginner traverses the slope until he or she encounters the trees at the edge. For skiers, trees provide a significant incentive to change (turn). However, the expert skier is always changing, always turning, always on edge, always adapting to the challenge down the hill. The beginning skier is more like a traditional organization, utilizing existing practices until the threat (or actuality) of encountering trees is so great it has to change. Adaptive organizations, like advanced skiers, treat continuous change as the norm—and their practices reflect that actuality.

The analogy has a further dimension. Watching a beginning skier is often painful; their arms are flailing, their skis cross intermittently, their bodies struggle for balance. The expert skier flows down the mountain, their arms barely moving for the next pole plant, their skis appearing fastened together, their bodies hardly moving.

Some organizations lurch from change to change. They fight change even as they try to manage it, flailing away and expending tremendous energy, while other organizations seem to gracefully absorb the inevitable bumps along the way.

Adaptive change is more graceful because it flows from all levels of an organization. Historically, however, change has been imposed in a top-down manner. From Newtonian determinism came Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management first published in 1916, which, in turn, spawned an almost slavish focus on process and workflow. Early science and early warfare lay the foundations for a command-and-control management philosophy: The manager knows the objective and commands the troops to conquer the objective. Once the command is given, the manager monitors progress and controls the outcome. This approach worked well as long as the objective to be conquered did not move around much, and as long as the organization existed in a more predictable world.

Adaptation depends on Leadership and Collaboration rather than on Command and Control.

The first focus of collaboration is on the work group and interpersonal relationships so as to create emergent order and thereby adapt locally. The second focus is on the cultural and structural aspects of collaboration necessary to create emergent order more globally—to scale adaptive development up to larger complex projects. The structure of an organization’s collaborative network has significant impact on its ability to produce emergent results and ultimately on its very ability to adapt. Adaptive Leadership focuses on creating the cultural environment in which adaptation and collaboration can thrive, and on creating a collaborative structure in which multiple groups can interact effectively.