Adaptive Interventions in Leadership: Adapt or Fail

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Practice of Adaptive Leadership" by Ronald A. Heifetz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What are adaptive interventions? What is the best time to launch an adaptive initiative?

In the context of leadership, adaptive interventions are measures put in place to address “adaptive challenges”—unexpected problems with no known solutions. You can launch an adaptive intervention at any moment of tackling the adaptive challenge, whether that’s during diagnosis or while another intervention is ongoing.

In this article, you’ll learn how to develop adaptive interventions and initiatives.

Develop Adaptive Interventions

For the best chances at success, adaptive interventions should be:

1. Clearly related to your interpretation of the adaptive challenge. People must see how what you’re proposing is relevant.

2. Purpose-serving. People need to see that your intervention will further the group interest. If they see it as a threat to their interest, they won’t support it.

3. Unpredictable. Develop interventions that are outside your current skill set. If you always respond in the same way, people will be able to predict you and head off your efforts. (Shortform example: If, in every situation, you most value environmental protection, people can attack your change initiatives by bringing up the environmental consequences of them, knowing that this will make you doubt your initiative.)

4. Experimental. Remember that addressing adaptive challenges requires openness to new ideas. You should commit to interventions while you’re carrying them out, but if they fail, be open to trying something new—this openness will allow you to try new things, be inquisitive, figure out what needs to stay and what needs to go, and fail.

Here’s how to adopt an experimental mindset:

  • Separate yourself from your initiatives. Once you’ve explained your idea, don’t defend or clarify it. If your team doesn’t take to it, assess why: Perhaps you explained it poorly, didn’t have enough authority, or were beating them over the head with it. Also, remember that your ideas aren’t you—don’t take rejection of them personally.
  • Conduct long experiments. These experiments can have objectives, milestones, data collection, and evaluations.
  • Slowly increase the size of your risks to build your tolerance. If you’re currently comfortable launching initiatives with a 50-50 chance of success, try a 45-55 risk. To find the courage to do this, remember why you’re doing it—you have an important purpose. 

While initiatives need to be experimental, you don’t necessarily need to (and in some cases, shouldn’t) loudly announce this aspect of them. If you’re a senior leader, people expect clear directions and certainty. Your initiative’s lack of rock-solidness may make them uncomfortable, especially if the running of the experiment involves losses that may not be tempered with gains.

You should initially call your experiment a “solution,” not an experiment, if it meets one of these two criteria:

1. You don’t think people will support it.

2. Your organization is in a state of emergency. 

  • For example, when a British battalion was trapped between enemy soldiers and a minefield, one soldier told the others he knew the way through the minefield. He didn’t actually know the way, but he knew if he framed his route as an experiment, no one would follow him. He presented his way as certain, everyone followed, and luckily, everyone survived.

As the experiment goes on, explain the uncertainty of the “solution” in small doses so people don’t get overwhelmed. Once you have support, or the immediate crisis has abated, bring up the need for midcourse corrections and the possibility of unexpected consequences. Additionally, if there was an emergency, use this as an example of the need for adaptive change—the emergency was just a symptom of a larger problem.

Launching an Intervention

There’s a six-step launching process, and you can complete the steps individually or in sequential order:

1. Always keep the big picture in mind. Even after you’ve started acting, maintain your diagnostic mindset so you can keep a clear head, continue to look at the situation objectively, and change course if necessary. 

2. Assess how widespread the urgency to change is within the organization. If only one group is ready to deal with an adaptive challenge (the rest of the organization isn’t ready either because it’s not affecting them yet or they’re avoiding it), your first step will be to make the issue urgent throughout the organization. You can do this in a variety of ways, such as raising the challenge directly, challenging people, or asking questions.

  • For example, for years, environmental groups such as Greenpeace were ready to tackle the adaptive challenge of climate change, but the general public and international governments weren’t. Environmental groups first focused on raising awareness and generating urgency—for instance, the Sierra Club launched environmental lawsuits.

If the whole organization is ready to address an adaptive challenge, you’ll need a collaborative approach.

  • For example, now that climate change is a globally recognized problem, environmental groups work with governments and businesses to create change.

3. Decide how to frame and state your intervention. Clearly communicate the course of action and why it’s important. It must resonate with other people’s points of view, not yours, and inspire them. Use whatever mix of facts and emotions will connect to your group’s value and find the balance between uninspiring language and fear-mongering.

  • For example, Martin Luther King Jr. framed his dream of equality within the context of the American dream, which was a concept much of his audience supported.

4. Relinquish control. Once you’ve set off an intervention, let other people discuss and change it. This is part of the adaptive, iterative process. However, don’t hold back, just hold steady—keep watching and listening to what they do. This will encourage others to fill the space you’ve left open and focus attention on the intervention. It will also allow you to assess progress and plan your next step.

5. Use the factions within your team as a proxy for organizational factions. As an intervention gains momentum, some people will engage with it and modify it, and others will resist it. Notice who in your team falls into each group and predict how this reflects the actions of the factions in the whole organization so you can start addressing potential large-scale resistance. 

Also, keep in mind that resistance often stems not only from the person who voices the objection but from the people she represents or reports to. Dissipate resistance by:

  • Helping the person who represents dissenters understand that the reason their constituents are resisting is fear of loss. Help them come up with a way to cope with and respect the losses.
  • Offering to help the person manage the resistance she’s dealing with. For example, offer to co-present the change initiative to her faction so she has backup if the presentation gets heated.

6. Keep people-focused. Because adaptive work is uncomfortable, people will look for ways to avoid it at all stages of the process. Encourage them to stay on-task by (politely) calling them on work-avoidance measures like changing the subject or making a joke to defuse tension.

Reflection Questions and Exercises

  • Before your next staff meeting, tell one or two coworkers that you’re going to try something different and ask them to watch the room. In the meeting, do something different from what you normally do. For example, if you usually speak a lot, stay quiet. Watch how everyone reacts and then discuss this with your observers.
  • What change initiative might you carry out to try to solve an adaptive challenge your organization is currently facing? What do you think the outcome of this initiative will be?
  • Interpret why you think this initiative is the right thing to do—what observations support it? What observations have you ignored or missed? Do the previously overlooked observations provide any guidance on what to do next?
  • Give yourself a score out of 10 (10 is highest) on your skill with each of the intervention steps. Which ones do you score high and low on?
  • When you explain your initiative, tell people about both the positive outcomes and necessary sacrifices. Outline what you’ll personally be sacrificing and then back it up with your actions. After you’ve done so, how does the level of resistance change?
Adaptive Interventions in Leadership: Adapt or Fail

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  • How to deal with unknown solutions that require innovation, experimentation, and adaptation
  • How to determine if a problem is technical or adaptive
  • Five tips for launching initiatives to address adaptive challenges

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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