Leadership: Distinguishing adaptive from technical work

At the Harvard Kennedy School, students aspire to be public “leaders”. But just what “leadership” entails? Ronald Heifetz’s Leadership without Easy Answers offers insights. The book basically has two key arguments: first, it distinguishes “technical problems” from “adaptive challenges”; and second, it distinguishes “leadership” from “authority”. I will only focus on the first argument here.

In our daily life, there are problems of which there is a definite answer: these problems are technical in the sense that we know already how to respond to them. For many problems, however, no adequate response has yet been developed. In case of disaster, such as the 9/11 attack, there would not be a “right” answer as to how we should respond, and these are the times for leadership. People will look to authorities in these time, but for answers they cannot provide. Heifetz’s idea is that the system would need to adapt, and it is the leader’s role to help the organization adapt and face the real challenge — the leader cannot, and would not, be able to be in a position to provide all the answers (because there may be no answer).

I copy below the three types of situations that distinguish adaptive from technical problems.

These Type I situations are somewhat mechanical: one can actually go to somebody and “get it fixed.” Many medical and surgical problems are of this sort, and many of them are life-saving. From the doctor’s point of view, these provide gratifying moments when she can say, “Finally somebody has brought me a problem that I can solve!” Although the patient’s cooperation is crucial in these situations, the weight of problem-defining and problem-solving rests with the physician. The patient looks to her to provide a prescription that at once will offer direction (take this medicine), protection (the medicine will overcome the infection), and order (you should be able to resume normal activity within the week).

Of course, many situations that bring people to doctors are not so technical. We can separate these adaptive situations into Types II and III. In Type II situations, the problem is definable but no clear-cut solution is available. The doctor may have a solution in mind, but she cannot implement it. And a solution that cannot be implemented is not really a solution; it is simply an idea, a proposal. The patient must create the solution in Type II situations, though the doctor may play a central role. Heart disease sometimes presents a Type II problem. The patient can be restored to more or less full operating capacity, but only if he takes responsibility for his health by making appropriate life adjustments. In particular, he will have to consider the doctor’s prescriptions for long-term medication, exercise, diet program, and stress reduction. He will have to choose among these. Type II situations can be managed in a mechanical way only partially by the physician. She diagnoses and prescribes, but her recommendations will have side effects requiring the patient’s evaluation of the tradeoffs. What new balance should he reach between cutting down the intensity of his job, getting exercise, or eating better? The patient has to recognize his own problem enough to provoke adaptive change. The responsibility for meeting the problem has to be shared.

In these situations, the doctor’s technical expertise allows her to define the problem and suggest solutions that may work. But merely giving the patient a technical answer does not help the patient. Her prescribing must actively involve the patient if she is to be effective. The patient needs to confront the choices and changes that face him. The doctor’s technical answers mean nothing if the patient does not implement them. Only he can reset the priorities of his life. He has to learn new ways. And the doctor has to manage the learning process in order to help the patient help himself. The dependency on authority appropriate to technical situations becomes inappropriate in adaptive ones. The doctor’s authority still provides a resource to help the patient respond, but beyond her substantive knowledge, she needs a different kind of expertise-the ability to help the patient do the work that only he can do.

Type III situations are even more difficult. The problem definition is not clear-cut, and technical fixes are not available. The situation calls for leadership that induces learning when even the doctor does not have a solution in mind. Learning is required both to define problems and implement solutions. Chronic illness and impending death from any cause often fit this category. In these situations, the doctor can continue to operate in a mechanical mode by diagnosing and prescribing remedies (and a “remedy” of some sort can usually be found). Yet doing so avoids the problem-defining and problem-solving work of both doctor and patient.

— Ronald Heifetz, Leadership with Easy Answers, pp. 74-75

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