In working with teams, I think it’s important to understand that some challenges take time and require buy-in to resolve. The leadership gurus I worked with at Harvard, Ronnie Heifetz and Marty Linsky,[i] call these adaptive challenges. They define technical challenges as those that are complicated, such as brain surgery or auto repair, but for which we have the necessary know-how. They define adaptive challenges as those that require changing attitudes, values, and behaviors. I use this delineation with teams to encourage them to pace the work and engage key actors when facing an adaptive challenge.
A wonderful example of this is a client I worked with over the last year. I was asked by a longstanding nonprofit to facilitate a strategic planning meeting to address the fact that program participants had dropped by 75% in five years. When I interviewed the Board members and key staffers, it became clear that the Board was deeply divided about whether to even change what they were doing. Some loved what they did and were willing to draw down the endowment to continue doing it in the same way. Some thought it was already too late, that they were “rearranging the chairs on the Titanic,” and that the quality of the work they were doing was so diluted by poor attendance as to be unacceptable.
A consultant could have recommended what change in their business model would attract more participants. But it became clear that coming to consensus on whether to even change at all was as complicated as knowing what the right next step was. So we set up four working groups to analyze scenarios that ranged from staying the same, to changing the business model, to shutting down. The working groups met monthly over a year.
One of my favorite illustrations of how taking this amount of time and asking the participants to do the work changed hearts and minds was when we assigned one Board member to a working group that was the opposite of what he wanted to do. When his group finished their analysis of this scenario he said,
“I want to thank the (Chair of the Board) publicly for dragging me kicking and screaming into Group 4…because I have a strong bias (against this idea). But Group 4 is a wonderful group of smart and caring people, and my eyes have at least been opened to (this) being a viable option which I could support under the right circumstances.”
After spending a year looking at financials, understanding the market, and hearing each others’ concerns and hopes, the Board generated multiple viable business options to choose from and came to consensus quickly and easily. At this point one Board member said that, while he had served on many boards and attended many board meetings, this was the best meeting he had ever participated in.
[i] Leadership on the Line, Heifetz and Linsky, Harvard Business School Press, 2017.