How to solve complex problems by accepting risk | Article

Sometimes, a supposedly simple solution fails to achieve its desired result because it represents an ‘adaptive challenge’ that requires a mindset shift. In this case, leaders must be prepared to take a risk and cross the boundary of their authority.

Recognising adaptive challenges

An important role for a leader is recognising the difference between a technical and an adaptive problem and creating the space to act accordingly. Treating complex ‘adaptive’ problems like they were simple ‘technical’ problems because it is safe may ultimately result in a poor long-term outcome.

One way to think of this is that “while technical problems may be very complex and critically important (like replacing a faulty heart valve during cardiac surgery) they have known solutions that can be implemented by current know-how. […] Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses and generating the new capacity to thrive anew.” (Heifetz, R. A., Linsky M., and Grashow A, 2009).

Leadership behaviours to tackle adaptive challenges

Individuals, especially leaders, are given authority to execute tasks that are often well understood. Adaptive leadership is not about meeting or exceeding your authorisers’ expectations; it is about challenging some of those expectations and finding a way to disappoint people without pushing them completely over the edge.

To tackle adaptive challenges, a leader must

  • be prepared to cross the boundary of their authority. Doing so creates the danger of punishment from authorisers
  • build partners internally and externally who are persuaded of the need for radical new thinking to mitigate the risk of moving beyond this line
  • realise that you as a leader may need to prepare for an uncomfortable working situation and support your team in the challenges they may face working adaptively.

Adaptive leadership within collaboration

Collaborations between organisations are more flexible than a single organisation, which has stronger incentives to maintain the status quo. The variety of organisational perspectives and resources makes collaboration a more effective tool to tackle adaptive challenges.

Learn more about how to make a collaboration successful in WIG’s Collaboration Playbook, researched and written by the University of Oxford’s Blavatnik School of Government. 

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