Future-Proofing through Adaptivity

Business problems can come in many forms. Some are linear. Others are complex. Some are apparent. Others are latent. Some are knowable. Others are unknowable. The best leaders identify business problems frequently, and classify them readily.

Technical business problems are linear, apparent, and knowable. For instance, if a critical server goes down, this is a problem with a clear solution: Bring the server back up as quickly as possible. For leaders, technical problems are treated by exercising authority and expertise. We feel pressure to drive these problems out of existence. The best leaders prioritize, triage, and optimize their approach to technical problems.

Nowadays, more and more business problems we encounter are not of the technical nature. They are complex, latent, potentially unknowable, and as a result, they frequently require learning before solving. Take the buzz worthy notion of "disruption," which threatens nearly every business model. Practically by definition, a source of disruption is unknowable, or at least unforeseen. Such problems are classified as adaptive. The leader tasked with solving an adaptive problem uses a different skill set than the leader solving technical problems. When facing adaptive problems, the best leaders spend their energy socializing with stakeholders, experimenting, and taking smart risks to bring a shared vision into existence.

I heard once that the biggest mistake a leader can make is to treat an adaptive problem as a technical problem. In businesses which tend to favor leaders with strong technical knowledge, this is all too common. These leaders often don't comprehend the mistake they've made. Maybe they exercise authority when they don't know best. Maybe they lean on their expertise in one domain when the best solution may lie in another. Maybe they execute when they should experiment. Or, in summary, maybe they're "knowing" when they should "learning."

A pattern of treating every problem as a technical problem can create an environment of learned helplessness for employees. I've counseled co-workers stuck in these situations, where they risk challenging a leader's technical savvy if they speak up. In such cases, there is no reward for adaptivity. These un-empowered employees may only feel safe when when treat work transactionally: "I was told to do this, so I did it. I was not told to do that, so I didn't."

Great leaders must have technical knowledge while maintaining adaptivity. Adaptivity can be valued, trained, and supported, even in a traditional command-and-control culture. In my blog, I hope to provide tools, insights, and case studies to help others train their adaptivity muscles. Through future visioning, surveying the technology landscape, and utilizing adaptive innovation leadership, we all can become Future Proof.

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