Heifetz & Laurie: Mobilizing Adaptive Work
Chapter 3 within “The Leader’s Change Handbook” tackles some difficult material in terms of leadership: what do we do when authorities don’t know the answers? Mobilize adaptive work.
Too often, we confuse leaders with authority, causing us to complain about the “lack of leadership” shown by our bosses, supervisors, or coaches. But instead of looking to our hierarchical superiors in times of crises, Heifetz & Laurie say that “we should be calling for leadership that summons us to face the problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – the challenges that require us to learn in new ways” (56). This is where adaptive work comes in: finding solutions by demanding learning and often requiring changes in people's values, attitudes, and habits.
In order to improve problem-solving and leadership dilemmas, Heifetz & Laurie ask leaders to note the differences between leadership and authority, as well as distinguish between technical and adaptive work (56). A failure to recognize these differences, they say, leads us to seek out the wrong kind of leadership, the kind of leadership that leads to “quick fixes” and incomplete innovation. Heifetz & Laurie believe that the best solutions require looking beyond technical fixes. "Hard to define and even harder to resolve, adaptive situations demand the work and responsibility of managers and works high and low," making adaptive work collaborative and messy - but certainly plausible in our shared-power world (63). Thankfully, “Mobilizing Adaptive Work” presents five principles of leadership for mobilizing people to do adaptive work:
- Identify the adaptive challenge
- Regulate distress
- Maintain disciplined attention
- Give the work back to people
- Protect leadership from below
I appreciated Heifetz & Laurie's honest and concise closing remarks on adaptive change: "Focusing managment team and front-line workers on adaptive change is among the leader's most difficult tasks...Adaptive challenges have no ready solutions" (85). Further, the conclusion reminded me of our discussions during last week's class regarding 'learned leadership' and 'change forward': "Leading adaptive change requires a learning strategy. To learn the way forward, each manager facing an adaptive challenge must ask who needs to learn what and how."
Questions for you...
Reflect on a situation when authority figures did not meet your expectations of leadership. How did this affect your personal definition or vision of leadership?
Can you think of a situation when you and your team or colleagues implemented an adaptive work strategy to solve a problem? If not, can you cite an experience about how a problem facing your team struggled due to the limits of technical work?
Do you think that the five principles of leadership as presented by Heifetz & Laurie are realistic for today's leaders? Why or why not?
Do you think that any one of the five principles is more important than the others? Why or why not?
Thanks for reading! I look forward to your comments and insights.