How leaders define challenges technical or adaptive

“Khun Kriengsak, in your recent column on ‘Re-examining Leadership’, you mentioned technical problems versus adaptive problems,” Khun Sombat says. “What are the implications for leaders?”

It’s a good question, and one that certainly merits exploring further. In my earlier column (Jan 9) I cited the book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky. They write:

“Technical problems may be very complex and critically important, they have known solutions that can be implemented using current knowhow. They can be resolved through the application of authoritative expertise and through the organisation’s structures, procedures, and ways of doing things.

“Adaptive challenges can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits and loyalties. Making progress requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilise discovery, shedding certain entrenched ways, tolerating losses, and generating the new capacity to thrive a new.

“The most common cause of failure in leadership is produced by treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.”

So much for the theory. “Coach, can you give me a real-world example?” Sombat asks.

“Khun Sombat, we all know that technology is part of our lives. What problems can technology cause for us in the workplace?”

“Coach, I think Facebook is a major problem that affects the productivity of my people. How do I prevent my employees from spending time on Facebook during working hours?”

“Facebook is a good example in this case. Nevertheless, your question reflects a leadership paradigm based on perceptions of a ‘technical problem’.”

“What do you mean?”

“Because you think people using Facebook during working hours is a ‘crime’, Something that is against policy.”

“But, it’s true, Coach. My employees are supposed to do work when they’re in the office. Instead they spend time on Facebook and that is considered cheating on the company’s time. It’s a crime.”

“You’re right if you’re talking about manual workers on the assembly line using Facebook while they’re supposed to be concentrating on assembling parts. But in your business we’re talking about knowledge workers, the majority of whom are young Generation Y people who grew up with computers. Let me ask you, how many knowledge workers report directly to you?”

“All of them. … Aha! I get it!” says Sombat, reaching his “Eureka!” moment.

“Khun Sombat, if you viewed this Facebook phenomenon as an adaptive problem, how would you change your question?”

“My question would be: How do I and my employees learn from this phenomenon? Then, we probably would ask the next question: How do we solve it together? Ideally, we would be able to ask an innovative question such as: How do we maximise the potential of Facebook?”

“That’s great, Khun Sombat.”

“Do you have an example of an innovative question?”

“In fact, I have one good example from the book The Corner Office by Bryant Adam. He tells the story of Vineet Nayar, the CEO of HCL Technologies, a global IT services company headquartered in India, who got the inspiration from his daughter.

“Mr Nayar doesn’t look at Facebook as a technical problem. He views it as an adaptive challenge. Asking himself, ‘How do we maximise Facebook?’ got him thinking of a new way for his employees to learn.” Here is the story:

HCL started having people make their presentations and record them for its internal website. Each presentation is open for review in a 360-degree workshop, which means their subordinates will review it. Their managers will read it. The peers will read it, and everybody will comment on it. Mr Nayar will be, or their manager will be, one of the many who read it. So every presentation was reviewed by 300 or 400 people.

What happened? There were two very interesting lessons Mr Nayar learned. One, because their subordinates are going to see the plan, they cannot lie. They have to be honest. Two, because their peers are going to see it, they are going to put their best work into it.

They didn’t learn from Mr Nayar. They learned by reviewing somebody else’s presentation. They learned from the comments somebody else gave them. For the eight thousand people who participated, a massive collaborative learning took place.

“Coach, that’s inspiring,” says Sombat, “Do you have any examples in Thailand?”

Good question. I logged into Facebook and asked people who are my own Facebook friends. Here are some of their inputs:

– The director-general of the Pollution Control Department uses Facebook to communicate policy, listen to feedback and for knowledge sharing for all staff.

– The station director at the Sakaerat Environmental Research Station uses it as a communication medium for its staff and the public.

– The president of Srinakharinwirot University uses it as a communication tool to staff and students. He posts his daily activities, listens to feedback from all of them and also broadcasts his thoughts.

“Khun Sombat, that brings us back to our leadership discussion. If leader treats adaptive challenges properly, the leader and his constituents together can work out the solution.”