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Solving problems with adaptive leadership

10 August 2023

News and media


Public servants deal with many complex problems that seem resistant to change. To bring about real change public servants need to understand why traditional leadership approaches fail and learn to practice adaptive leadership that works with communities and mobilises them to help solve problems.

Adjunct Professor Farayi Chipungu is on the faculty at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she teaches the field-leading course Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change. In September 2023, she returned to ANZSOG’s Public Leadership Masterclass series to present a masterclass on Adaptive Leadership which taught participants practical strategies for leading change.

Professor Chipungu says that the challenges facing contemporary governments need public servants who understand how to exercise leadership from any position in a hierarchy and to distinguish between technical problems and adaptive challenges.

She said that governments must adapt to the modern world by shifting from ‘government’ to ‘governance’, recognising that their role is to coordinate actors in the public and private sectors and to engage their citizens.

“Traditional government has been built for a world of certainty, where they send resources and information out to peripheries. In a world that is so uncertain it’s not sustainable to rely on traditional models of leadership” she said.

“Governments need to create capacity and flexibility throughout the system they oversee. Not just at the top or in the middle but all the way to the frontline so that people who are interacting with citizens are able to gather information, and shift course by thinking and acting strategically.

“In terms of adaptive leadership, we need to shift from thinking that leadership is a position or a title – in a system where it’s only the manager who can make this decision – to leadership being an activity which anyone in an organisation can practice. Where people can think about the political environment, build coalitions when needed, and have ownership of an agency.”

“I have seen situations where someone is in that seat of power, with a fancy title and a corner office, but they can’t really get people to do stuff because they have never really learned how to lead. They need to think about their placement in the system, ask themselves where their authority comes from and what its constraints are, and learn how to work through other people to get stuff done.”

Distinguishing between technical and adaptive problems

She said the key to adaptive leadership was learning to distinguish between technical and adaptive problems, which required different mindsets and techniques to solve.

“The simplest way to distinguish the two is that technical problems have a known solution which clear, even if it is difficult or time-consuming, and the main requirements are time, resources and expertise,” she said.

“Adaptive problems demand discovery and tend to require engagement and collaboration. When problems are adaptive, the problem itself is usually not clear because of its multi-faceted nature. Or different people have different ideas whether it is a problem, or of the level of urgency around it.”

“Solving adaptive problems is not just done with experts but also involves the people with the problem. They may be needed to help you find what the actual problem is as well as to find the solution.”

“Those solutions involve changes to ideas, values and behaviours. All this takes time, because adaptive challenges usually involve some kind of loss, because things have to shift, and people don’t like to lose things.”

She said that understanding the difference between the two types of problems was an important step to effectively sharing government power with the community.

“When we recognise which problems are technical and which are adaptive, we can start to understand which parts of government we can control or resolve on our own, and which parts we just cannot do that, because we won’t get the results we need,” she said.

“I try to teach that diagnostic ability, because the biggest waste of time, resources and social capital in organisational contexts happens when we bring the wrong of approach to a challenge; when we mistake adaptive challenges for technical problems.”

She said that giving power to communities often made it easier to develop solutions that were stable and sustainable in the long-term, because it allowed them to own the problem and ‘their piece of the mess’ and made it easier to manage trade-offs between different interests.

“It also creates a space to know where you can understand what people will be offended about, and how strongly, and whether you can get them on board. When you are dealing with difficult problems some people will always have experiences they don’t want to have. If you can engage more strategically, you are less likely to be surprised.”

Exercising adaptive leadership

Professor Chipungu said that public servants at any level could exercise adaptive leadership, and that people at all levels of organisations held unique knowledge that could help solve problems.

“You need to recognise that you have agency and are able to exercise leadership. People at the top of an organisation see the problem differently, and unless they can get information, participation and mobilisation from people in the middle and at the frontline, they may end up solving the wrong problem or making slower progress than they otherwise could,” she said.

“We need people down the line to align around purpose and to have the courage and the ability to strategically intervene when needed to help the people in power to see the things that they are not seeing and when there is a requirement for a course correction.

She said that to lead adaptive change, you not only needed the ability to recognise adaptive problems but also an attitude and skill set that suited working on them.

“They need the ability to be able to recognise what adaptive work requires in terms of a growth mindset, curiosity, resilience and of engagement with other people. Adaptive work is difficult because it takes a lot longer and having that mindset to be able to play the long game, being prepared to get up from failure, and create space and time for learning and growth is important.”

“Having a sense of self-awareness, and having a sense of your place in the system and knowing how to navigate it. Being able to understand what your strengths and weaknesses are, being able to build teams when needed, and to consult with other people when you have certain limitations.”

In an increasingly polarised world, a quality that has become more and more important was the ‘radical empathy’ required to fully understand the thinking of people who opposed you.

“You need to understand what the people on the other side of the issue are thinking, why are they resisting what you want to do? You need that radical empathy of being able to see a challenge from ten different perspectives and recognise that yours is just one, because you can’t lead people unless you know where they are.”

Professor Chipungu said that her masterclass would give participants an understanding of some of the tools of adaptive leadership, but she hoped that they would leave with one simple skill: asking better questions.

“We need to ask better questions: because in a context that is so full of uncertainty and unknowns, sometimes all you can do is lead with a good question.

“So, asking better questions to try to figure out exactly what I’m dealing with, how long it’s going to take, who I need to work with and what approach I need to bring to this, is going to make you so much better at dealing with those challenges.”