Adaptive Challenges

Adaptive Challenges

We live and work in a dynamic and adaptive world – full of dynamic and adaptive systems and people. Things are always changing. Sometimes those changes are small and happen gradually. Other times there are big dramatic changes in what seems like an instant. 2020 gave us an example of what that can look like.

How do we lead ourselves, our teams, our organisations when we face so much complexity?

How do we design, build, and launch our ideas when there’s so much uncertainty? So many possibilities and opportunities. So many risks to manage. A key thing we need to practice is recognising adaptive challenges and taking the right approach to meet them.

Recognising Adaptive Challenges

There are broadly two types of challenge: technical and adaptive. Usually our education and jobs have taught and rewarded us for focusing on and solving technical challenges.

We often don’t recognise when we’re faced with an adaptive challenge, and even if we do recognise it, we approach it in the same way we do technical challenges. We look at the facts and try to use best practice and experts to solve them. This approach doesn’t usually work well or for long with adaptive challenges.

“The most common leadership failure stems from trying to apply technical solutions to adaptive challenges.”

– Alexander Grashow, Marty Linsky & Ronald Heifetz, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

The reality is pretty much all challenges have both technical and adaptive aspects to them. What are the characteristics of these two types of challenge?

Technical Challenges

There are technical aspects to challenges, and we need our technical skills to be able to take on those challenges to come up with solutions. With technical challenges, we tend to start with a clear problem.

With technical challenges, the focus is on facts and logic, and the context tends to be more predictable and consistent. This makes it easier to get to a very well-defined problem. The solution is pretty clear, and can be implemented by experts and people in authority – generally in quite short timeframes.

People just need to be informed, and will often adopt the solution without much resistance.

Adaptive Challenges

Just as there are technical aspects to the challenge, there are adaptive aspects too – especially where there are people involved. The reality with innovative ideas is that we spend a lot of time dealing with adaptive systems challenges. With adaptive challenges, we tend to start with a question.

With adaptive challenges, the problem and root cause are often hard to identify because we’re looking at complex interconnected systems – and the context is uncertain and inconsistent.

A key difference to technical challenges is they can’t just be solved by experts or people in authority. They require people to take action themselves as part of solving the problem – and this means changes in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours.

We all have a higher level of resistance to those kinds of changes, and it often takes some kind of transformative experience and learning – and often unlearning – for us to shift.

Working on adaptive challenges tends to happen over longer timeframes, often requires collaboration and co-design, and there’s normally a lot more resistance to adopting the solution.

Two examples are often used to bring this to life. The first is someone goes to the doctor with a broken arm. There’s a clearly defined problem. They can’t fix it themself, but the doctor knows the problem, and with their expertise provides the solution. They leave with their arm in a cast, and once healed, the problem is gone. This is a technical solution to a technical challenge.

The other scenario is someone goes to the doctor with chest pain. There are many possible causes, and the doctor doesn’t immediately know what the problem is. Several tests may be necessary to identify the cause. Long-term lifestyle changes may be required, and the doctor can’t directly solve the problem. The patient needs to do the work. This is an adaptive challenge.

There are different types of challenges with different levels of complexity.

Cynefin Framework

I find the Cynefin Framework by Dave Snowden very useful as a complexity sense-making model. The framework shows five domains or decision-making contexts: clear (previously known as simple or obvious), complicated, complex, chaos, and disorder.

By accurately sensing our situation, we can respond in a way that’s relevant to the level of complexity we’re faced with.

Design thinking is especially powerful when approaching adaptive challenges – specifically complex and complicated situations.

Solve Problems That Matter

In my book Solve Problems That Matter, I go into a lot more detail on all of the things I’ve covered in this post… and plenty more.

It’s a playbook with actions and worksheets to help you take a human-centred design and living systems approach to design, build, and launch your idea. Ideas that customers love, make money, and do great things for people and our planet… all while increasing wellbeing.

Let’s Collaborate

We specialise in coaching, training, and working alongside leaders.

A key way we do this is by designing and delivering action learning experiences with masterclasses, workshops, innovation sprints, and leadership, design thinking & innovation programs. These sessions build personal, team, and organisational capability to solve problems that matter with more:

  • Clarity on your purpose, goals, and approach to navigate complexity and make progress
  • Momentum to achieve your goals by building the workflows, rhythms, and habits for success
  • Confidence to move forward with more certainty and less risk while increasing your wellbeing


Ready to have fun collaborating to solve problems that matter?

Book a free 15-minute discovery call.