The Levers for Sustaining Change: Adaptive Leadership

This newsletter series has introduced the RCA Levers for Sustaining Change, a framework consisting of five interlocking elements that enable and support the momentum for change in teams and organizations, as well as ‘sustaining’ the resulting benefits.

Earlier newsletters have introduced the first four elements: Effective Teams, Capable People, Empowering Culture, andHybrid Mastery (Click each element to read more).  

Now it’s time to meet the final lever!

Adaptive Leadership

Today’s world is marked by an intricate web of challenges and opportunities. Disruptions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. Ongoing global conflicts. The ever-more visible effects of climate change. Pervasive political polarization. These and other forces continually place pressure on markets, societies, and organizations, requiring a responsive nimbleness to avoid being overwhelmed.

Gone are the days when leaders could rely on long-term plans and fixed strategies. Instead, Adaptive Leadership is a core capacity required by all who seek to lead change and organizations.

Leaders straddle the space between operational and strategic domains. They seek to balance the immediate demands of their organization with the shifting opportunities and challenges in the wider environment. Rather than a stubborn capacity to “plough through” all obstacles, leaders require the capacity to navigate complex, adaptive challenges effectively.

Given our shared experience over the last four years, we will all have appreciation for both how necessary and how difficult this balancing act can be!

So what are the pain points that hold organizations back from embracing Adaptive Leadership? Here are some of the things we have seen in struggling organizations:

Low Adaptability: A surprising number of leaders continue to cling to rigid plans and goals, even when the situation demands flexibility. They yearn for a return to “The Time Before…” This hampers the organization’s ability to respond to a constantly evolving environment.

Ineffective Leadership: Inflexible leadership can mean that change is delayed to the point where it can be “too little, too late.” They try to follow what others are doing, rather than paying attention to the unique needs of their own organization.

Inefficient Change Management: Traditional change management approaches no longer work. Conditions change before the plan can be implemented. A large number of my clients have had to scrap and revise their “Return To Office” policies over the last three years due to the unpredictable landscape

There’s a helpful metaphor for Adaptive Leadership coined by Ron Heifetz. In his books (starting with “Leadership Without Easy Answers”), he observes that effective adaptive leaders move back and forth between the “Dance Floor” and the “Balcony.” 

The Dance Floor: The dance floor symbolizes the operational dimension of leadership. On the dance floor, leaders are immersed in day-to-day activities, engaging with their immediate surroundings. Their perspective is constrained to the present moment, making it challenging to discern the broader picture and anticipate emerging issues.

The Balcony: In contrast, the balcony embodies the strategic perspective. From the balcony, leaders enjoy a panoramic view of the whole dance floor. This  elevated vantage point allows them to observe the flow, identify disruptions, and discern evolving patterns. This provides them with the space and time to adapt nimbly to what would otherwise be unexpected developments. 

So, how do you nurture the capacity for Adaptive Leadership in your organization and its leaders?

While this is a broad topic, we support our clients to develop three core leadership practices:

Observe and Make Sense: Adaptive leaders practice observing and making sense of what they notice. They cultivate curiosity, seeking to learn more about both the patterns and anomalies in their environment. The process of sensemaking provides them with one (or more) perspectives on the situation, providing them with several options for what to do next.

Try Small Experiments: Adaptive leaders embrace experimentation as a cornerstone practice. Instead of doggedly adhering to a single plan, they understand the need to test multiple avenues, pivoting based on feedback and results. This orientation for experimentation frees leaders from the search for the one perfect solution and enables more rapid decision-making.

Connect to Purpose and Direction: In the face of uncertainty, leaders tether their teams to a guiding purpose and direction. Strengthening this alignment with the organization’s overarching direction enables teams to maintain momentum even when the path forward is unclear.

Adaptive Leadership is a necessity for leaders and organizations that seek to thrive in the midst of uncertainty. Adopting these three practices as a foundation, leaders are equipped to navigate the challenges of change and growth in complex environments.

Until next time,

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