In a great book Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, they describe the difference between Adaptive Change and Technical Change.

If people have the know-how and procedures to solve a problem — a case where there is an answer, it is a technical problem.

Contrast that with situations where there are questions, not answers: challenges that require experiments, new discoveries and adjustments from many parts of the organization.  Heifetz and Linsky call these adaptive changes.

At the beginning of adaptive change, there is no guarantee that the new situation will be any better than the current condition.  People must change attitudes, values and behaviors and internalize the change — a high risk thing to do with an uncertain payoff.  

What people see in an adaptive change setting is loss.  People don’t resist change, per se, they resist loss.

If you frame your situation in this manner, it goes a long way in helping you know how you should address it.  It is a very different environment when you are focusing on finding an answer vs. trying to raise the questions, but success only comes if you put your effort on the right end of the equation.

Think about the change that you are trying to make.  Is it a technical issue or an adaptive one?  Are you trying to find an answer or invent one?  Framing the change you seek in the right context will help you distinguish how you can mobilize those you are leading to achieve the results you want.

— beth triplett

Source:  Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Harvard Business Review Press, 2002

About the Author leadership dots by dr. beth triplett

Dr. beth triplett is the owner of leadership dots, offering coaching, training and consulting for new supervisors. She also shares daily lessons on her leadershipdots blog. Her work is based on the leadership dots philosophy that change happens through the intentional connecting of small steps in the short term to the big picture in the long term.

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