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