Are All Organizational Challenges the Same?

There are two fundamentally different types of challenge that organizations face—‘technical’ problems and ‘adaptive’ challenges. This distinction is crucial to understanding innovation.

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Arts and cultural organizations—typically built for continuity, not for innovation—often approach adaptive change with technical solutions and wonder why they don’t work.

To understand this distinction, we look to Ronald Heifetz, Senior Lecturer in Public Leadership and Co-Founder of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and his work on leadership and organizational change.

According to Heifetz:

Technical challenges are ones that can be solved by improving an organization’s current practices. Solutions already exist in the world and experts can be used to align the organization’s strategy with established ‘best practices.’ Problems of this type are easily identified and lend themselves to an incremental approach that modifies business-as-usual, without deviating far from it.

By contrast, adaptive challenges are those that have no set procedures, no recognized experts, and no evident responses available to meet the challenge or solve the problem. They are more difficult to identify and easy to deny.

Heifetz explains:

“If you throw all the technical fixes you can at the problem and the problem persists, it’s a pretty clear signal that an underlying adaptive challenge still needs to be met. Adaptive challenges are often harder to pin down, and less clearly visible, than technical ones, and certainly tougher to work on.”

To respond effectively, organizations have to question and disturb their fundamental assumptions and beliefs about their business. That means that only the people who face the challenge can do the work of addressing it—and they will need to experiment with unfamiliar approaches that depart from previous practice.

Common Adaptive Challenges
This chart gives some examples of common adaptive challenges, showing ‘business-as-usual’ technical solutions vs. forward-thinking adaptive responses.
About

Richard Evans, President, EmcArts Inc.Richard Evans is the President of EmcArts, where he directs program design, research, and strategic partnerships that place a particular emphasis on innovation, adaptive organization change, and effective ways that the arts and culture field can respond to the demands of a new era.

  • http://www.umslobby.org/ Anna Prushinskaya

    Richard, thank you for articulating this distinction – It is good to be challenged to be bold, to consider often whether an adaptive or technical approach is more suitable. In my own experience, this is not only an organizational but a personal challenge. It seems that often our organizations have one or two (or perhaps a few) employees who are the designated “change-agents,” and that often these employees are also charged with nuts-and-bolts implementation of digital media (or other innovation-driven) initiatives, and implementation is a handful. I wonder if you could share your thoughts about the staff-level implications of adaptive approaches to change? As a personal goal, I hope to think at the level of this distinction as opposed to solely an operational level as frequently as possible. I think communities like Arts Fwd offer the support necessary for this kind of high-level thinking as part of our daily workflow.