>“The single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify — in politics, community life, business, or the nonprofit sector — is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.”

>Heifetz, Linsky – Leadership on the Line

When managing or leading a technical team, or being a person within a technical role, we can often fall into the trap of dealing with every problem the same way we would a defect or a broken arm.

The most effective leaders must be able to distinguish technical challenges from adaptive challenges. The result can be the difference between a deeply moving, positive and long lasting change, or one that works for a while and then crops up again to haunt you.

So, what is the difference between a technical and adaptive challenge and how do you recognise it?

Technical challenges

  • When your car runs out of gas, you get it to a station and fill it up.

  • If you break your arm bone, you go to a doctor and get it plastered up until it heals.

  • You find a defect in your software, so you get a developer to fix it.

Technical challenges are easy, repeatable and are things that have a definitive answers.

A manager’s role is often centred around managing these types of problems. They are focused on maintaining norms, identifying and solving problems with known answers. Generalising here for a bit, traditional IT people are great at this. Math equations have an answer and a compile error in your software can be fixed without leaving the keyboard.

In my experience, peoples reaction to you stating the problem as a technical one is very welcoming. They might even thank you before they disappear back to their cubicle. The response is positive because you immediately take the pain away from them. The solution is known, it's easy and you can push it out of mind quickly.

Adaptive challenges

  • You keep getting sick in the same way. Antibiotics and vitamin tablets no longer do the trick. Perhaps you need to change your lifestyle. Eat healthier, get some exercise, learn to rest properly.

  • You keep breaking bones in your body. Perhaps you need to take less risks (or drink more milk!)

  • Crime rates continue to rise in your community. Increasing penalties and training more police doesn’t seem to be helping.

  • You keep arguing with your partner about money issues. Creating a budget hasn’t helped because you keep blowing it. Do you need to address the underlying issues of why you keep spending?

Adaptive challenges are hard. They deal with the underlying values and beliefs that people have and therefore go deeper than technical challenges. A manager’s role does not often centre around these issues. Instead “leaders” are required to help a group work through these problems. The leader doesn’t need to be the hierarchical leader either. It can be anyone in the team, outside of the team or even yourself.

People’s reaction to you raising an adaptive challenge are usually not very welcoming. They will jump back to a technical solution very quickly or simply refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem. They will use incredibly creative ways to avoid the hard work before them and make scapegoats out of anyone they possibly can.

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How to distinguish between the two?

In their book "Leadership on the Line", Heifetz and Linsky say that “you can never be certain.” They do however give us some clues to be on the lookout for …

  • You know you’re dealing with something more than a technical issue when people’s hearts and minds need to change, and not just their preferences or routine behaviours.

  • You can distinguish technical problems from adaptive challenges by a process of exclusion. If you throw all the technical fixes you can imagine at the problem and the problem persists, it’s a pretty clear signal that an underlying adaptive challenge still needs to be addressed.

  • The persistence of conflict usually indicates that people have not yet made the adjustments and accepted the losses that accompany adaptive change.

  • Crisis is a good indicator of adaptive issues that have festered.

With more and more software impacting people's everyday life, we begin to find more and more issues that are not technical but rather adaptive in nature. Changing the behaviour of your mobile app is one thing, but truly understanding the underlying challenge is something alltogether different. It takes a lot of practice, but is intensly rewarding when done right.

When faced with your next issue or crisis, try to tease out which part of it requires a technical solution and which part is an adaptive challenge. It’s not always easy, but can be the difference between a hugely successful result and one that hunts you down endlessly.