August 11, 2008

Adaptive Leadership & My New KM Crush

OR, "Is It Time To Take Over The World Yet, Brain?"

Okay, so I'm trying to get into the groove of this whole, weekly blogging thing. Ironically, I'm crazy busy right now (still) trying to launch a city-wide KM survey all on my lonesome and planning a fundraising tourney for 2009, in addition to all that other stuff I do everyday (work, tennis...iron Emilie's linen garments), so you'd think I'd have little to no time to blog, but I suppose my thoughts are also racing and blogging is helping a bit to keep me focused.

Anyway, I was doing some follow-up research on ROWE earlier this week, first reading about why ROWE sucks and then how ROWE Aims to "Rock the Workplace Boat". It was in the latter article that I got stuck on (ROWE creators) Cali Ressler & Jody Thompson's comments on adaptive change vs. technical change and started googling "adaptive change" to get more insight into the theory. That search brought me to the transcript of a 1999 interview with Professor Ronald Heifetz who spoke on the subject.

Professor Heifetz, author of the best-selling "Leadership Without Easy Answers", is billed as one of the world's leading authorities on leadership. He is the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He's also a physician, a cellist, and, after reading this transcript, my new KM crush.


Though I'm fond of being the quirky oddball (you've got to keep a sense of humor if you want to make it in this world, period, let alone the business world), one of my core values, personally and professionally, is the development of human beings into their potential - spiritually, intellectually, and socially. Every situation is an opportunity to learn and learning is how we grow. Unfortunately, in a society that increasingly places money, "things"/possessions, and a quality of living that is exclusive, rather than inclusive above respect for life, the environment which life requires for sustenance, education and basic human dignity, I'm often left to wonder how the human race continues to thrive......I'm trying to think of a funny joke to support that statement, but the ones I typically use are either highly inappropriate, even for this blog, or just plain sad.

Anyway, the need to find creative avenues to promote and create change in how we perceive the value and worth of people - beyond their ability to make a profit, sell a product, or entertain us - and, subsequently, help people develop into their potential, is one of the primary reasons I was attracted to knowledge management. This is in the spirit of one of my literary crushes, Audre Lorde, and her call to forge new tools with which to create true change in the world.

So, when I have the opportunity to learn from folks whose message is revolutionary in its simplicity and application, folks like author and educator Parker Palmer who teaches in (one of my favorite books) "To Know As We Are Known: Education As A Spiritual Journey" that the origin of knowledge is love, whose message is revolutionary in its simplicity and application, I am inspired to improve myself as a student, a teacher, a professional, and a person.

I'm still swimming in the pool of Professor Heifetz's ideas a little too deeply to string together the best words to effectively present why I'm 'feeling' them so much, but I'll do my best (otherwise, what's the point of this blog!?!?!).

Professor Heifetz's theory of adaptive change is rooted in the principles of evolutionary biology wherein an organism makes determinations about what DNA to keep, what to discard, and what to build as it responds - adapts - to its ever changing environment. Likewise, organizations must make similar determinations with regards to business/cultural practices, processes, and products. Not rocket science, I know, but Heifetz goes on to highlight the importance of conservation - holding on to what works - in this process, and how frequently it is overlooked.

Leadership then, in Heifetz's words, is about the mobilization of adaptive work, rather than transformational change; "(E)ngaging people to make progress on the adaptive problems they face". In this regard, adaptive leadership is not, as I learned, unlike being a facilitator: helping folks to identify the challenge(s), creating an environment in which challenges can be resolved, providing tools and resources to assist in resolution efforts, enabling/empowering folks to be problem solvers, but not taking on the responsibility and burden of resolving the challenge(s) for them. "In adaptive problems, the people themselves are the problem; the solution, therefore, lies within them. If they don't change their ways, then you have no solution - all you have is a proposal." Considering that we live in a country (for those of us in the USA) in which too many folks are all too willing to throw their collective hands up and declare "you can't fight city hall" or "one vote won't make a difference" despite the fact that collectively we ARE the government, you can see how this process can be a challenge in and of itself. Still, I think it's spot on and overdue.

"The challenge with adaptive work, in biology and in organizational life, is to figure out how to capitalize on history without being enslaved by it."
This is an area that I work hard to address in my KM work and one that I often see ignored and disregarded. I stress, repeatedly, that regardless if the term KM is used in an organization or whether or not a documented strategy for managing knowledge/information exists, there is no such thing as an organization that does not have a KM strategy. Understanding in what form that strategy exists and how it exists, how it lives in an organization and is embodied in the culture is key to determining what is and isn't working and what innovations should be considered in helping the organization achieve its KM goals. This approach also makes KM less arcane to the organization and understanding lessens the fear and apprehension associated with change.

Although, after reading this piece, perhaps I should re-think how I use word 'fear' with regards to change. As Professor Heifetz states,

"The aphorism that is commonly bandied about is "people resist change," or "change frightens people." I think that’s wrong. I think that when people win the lottery and win a million dollars, or ten million dollars, they know their life is going to be enormously changed and they welcome that change. They don’t give the money back. Change is hard when it represents the possibility of loss. It’s the possibility of loss, and the apprehension, fear, and anxiety associated with that possibility of loss that generates resistance."
Heifetz goes on to discuss the lack of appreciation and respect given to "the pain of change".

I'm pretty sure I've been a capital 'A' ass at times in my efforts to penetrate organizational cultures and spread the 'good word of KM'. And, God only knows how many Pinky-and-the-Brain hours I've spent developing KM branding strategies. I even have a name for it, Guerilla KM. All of this, of course, isn't meant to intentionally disrespect "the pain of change", but, like many aggresive change strategies, it's predicated on the idea that those whose behavior I'm trying to change, are mostly lazy, selfish, self-interested, narrow-minded, stuck in the past, unsavvy, control freaks. In my defense, however, I do begin my KM branding efforts (Plan A) by educating folks on the relevance of KM to what they do.

Then I get my 'Brain' on.

Once decisions have been made about what to keep, discard, and where to innovate, Heifetz suggests the need for leaders (who themselves must have an experimental mindset) to "mobilize people for a set of innovative experiments," the goal of which is to "graft onto the best of the organizational DNA so that the organization can thrive in the future."

Heifetz makes a lot of really cool points (at least, in my mind they're cool) and you can read some of his thoughts here, here, and here. Ultimately, the goal of adaptive change and adaptive leadership is to "move people from an entrenched set of investments with an entrenched set of loyalties to a more curious, adventuresome, experimental mindset. Then, they are more willing to entertain opposing points of view without feeling that their most precious set of values are going to be lost in the process. With the faith in themselves that they can find and then hold onto what is most essential."

As knowledge managers, we can save ourselves a lot of grief and anxiety by understanding and addressing the actual needs of our organizations and heeding Heifetz's call to an adaptive leadership. Interestingly enough, even with this approach, you'll still get to be the cool kid problem solver. Holla!

I've got to get out of the office to get to a tennis match, so, I'll close with Professor Heifetz's 5 Principles of Leadership from "Leadership Without Easy Answers".
  1. Identify the adaptive challenge (the issues, values and stakes).
  2. Keep the level of distress within a tolerable range so that the group can do its adaptive work.
  3. Focus attention on ripening issues, not on distractions.
  4. Give the work back to the people, but at a rate they can handle.
  5. Protect the voices of leadership in the community that are without authority.
Welcome to my crush crew Doc!


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Anonymous said...

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