Book Review: The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and The World

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership

“The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World” is an outstanding book and reference on adaptive leadership. I have read it twice since July 2013 when it was recommended to me. It’s engaging and packed full of ideas and tools to help you develop and improve yourself and your organization into one that is continuously learning and improving. I have almost every damn page in the book highlighted!!!

The topic of adaptability and adaptive leadership is the premise of Don Vandergriff’s and I’s upcoming book; “Law Enforcement & Security Adaptive Leader Handbook: Innovative Ways to Teach and Develop Your People” and, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership focus on reading situation and making decisions. We focus on Boyd’s OODA Loop; they describe it differently in 3 key activities:

"Adaptive leadership is an iterative process involving three key activities: 1) observing events and patterns around you; 2) interpreting what you are observing (developing multiple hypotheses about what is really going on); 3) designing interventions based on the observations and interpretations to address the adaptive challenge you have identified. Each of these activities builds on the ones that come before it; and the process overall is iterative: you will repeatedly refine your observations, interpretations, and interventions."

When you are dealing with adaptive challenges, there is no obvious answer to the question “What is going on here?” Trying to define the problem at hand is a contentious act in itself. Managing this ambiguity requires courage, tenacity, and an experimental mind-set: you try things out, see what happens, and make changes accordingly.

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World, was recommended to me by Dan Toomey Special Consultant, Homeland Security Training Program, California Commission on POST. Dan heads up California POST Steering Committee inspired by Chief Cynthia Renaud of Folsom PD. The steering committee (I am also a member) has focused its efforts on Initial Response to Critical Events and is in the process of developing the “EDGE OF CHAOS” Command Study Program.”

The program of study is intended to improve the Incident Commander’s ability to function within the “golden hour” of large-scale incidents. This “golden hour” is defined as the chaotic stage of an incident in which the crisis may still be fluid, information is difficult to obtain, situational awareness seemingly impossible to establish, resources scarce, and it is difficult to immediately determine with any measure of certainty how to set multiple people, groups and agencies on the path towards solving the problem. This period typically appears at the beginning of the incident, subsiding at the point where a focus of mission and path are clear and when a formal Incident Command Structure can be established. This program of study will increase the effectiveness of the leadership during chaos by developing confidence and allowing for a more intuitive application of the fundamental principles of incident command.

The ability TO DO this takes developing cops with a high level of professionalism who possess the “explorer mentality” and the ability to apply what they know to the adaptive challenges they face. The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World. The authors expand on this concept of what I call the explorer mentality and they call “the experimental mindset” they explain it as follows:

“When you adopt an experimental mind-set, you actively commit to an intervention you have designed while also not letting yourself become wedded to it. That way, if it misses the mark, you do not feel compelled to defend it. This mind-set also opens you to other, unanticipated possibilities. (You are undoubtedly familiar with the stories about the ways Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Edison produced their great inventions by accident, while pursuing some other purposes entirely.) Thinking experimentally also opens you to learning: you stay open to the possibility that you might be wrong. Finally, an experimental mind-set facilitates the iterative nature of the adaptive leadership process: you make an intervention based on your interpretation of the situation, and you see what happens. You use the results of your experiment to take the next step or to make a midcourse correction.”

The book gets very deep, in a positive way, into organizations structures and culture which research shows is key to how and organization functions and solves problems.

“In addition to structures and culture, an organization’s problem-solving defaults can provide insights into the way your organization operates as a system—and its adaptability. Defaults are the ways of looking at situations that lead people to behave in ways that are comfortable and that have generated desirable results in the past. Organizations fall back on defaults because they are familiar and they have proved useful for explaining reality and solving problems in the past. When people in an organization find that a certain response to a particular type of situation worked well previously, they will likely repeat that response whenever they encounter an apparently similar situation. After all, why tamper with success? But the more a default continues to work, the more it gets repeated. And the harder it is for the organization to change when new realities require a different response.

Also, a default that works in one setting, at one moment in time, may not necessarily work in another place or time. Because people tend to interpret new situations in ways that confirm the default, they fail to recognize the distinctive qualities of a new situation and thus cannot develop fresh solutions. Finally, an organization’s default responses become predictable, enabling competitors or other adversaries to use that predictability for their own purposes.”

Identify a default interpretation that your organization regularly makes. What view of the world is it based on? What predictable behavior does it generate? What created the default? In what situations has the default worked well? In what situations has it proved less effective? What’s different about those two types of situations?

ADAPTIVE CHALLENGES ARE difficult because their solutions require people to change their ways. Unlike known or routine problem solving for which past ways of thinking, relating, and operating are sufficient for achieving good outcomes, adaptive work demands three very tough, human tasks: figuring out what to conserve from past practices, figuring out what to discard from past practices, and inventing new ways that build from the best of the past.

“Many people apply solutions that have worked in other situations in the past but fail to take sufficiently into account the value-laden complexity of the new problem situation. The complexity is not just analytical complexity in the way that difficult economics or engineering problems have uncertainty and complexity associated with them. They have human complexity because the problems themselves cannot be abstracted from the people who are part of the problem scenario itself. So the analysis must take into account the human dimensions of the changes required, the human costs, paces of adjustment, tolerances for conflict, uncertainty, risks and losses of various sorts, and the resilience of the culture, and network of authority and lateral relationships that will need to backstop the tensions and pains of change.

The failure to take into account the diagnosis of the human aspects of adaptive challenges, and the tendency to treat the diagnostic task like any other analytical, expert task that can be separated from the cultural and political human dimensions of the situation, is a primary cause of low implementation rates, whether of doctors’ exercise and diet regimens for patients; brilliant public policy analysis performed in universities, think tanks, and government agencies; or well-considered strategic plans developed by the major business consulting firms.”

Separating a situation’s technical elements from its adaptive elements, listening for clues in what people are saying about the problem, and looking for adaptive challenge archetypes can help.

Determine the Technical and Adaptive Elements

The authors say, Leadership begins, then, with the diagnostic work of separating a problem’s technical elements from its adaptive elements. The task is to appreciate, value, and take in what the experts say, but then go beyond their filters to take into account the cultural and political human requirements of tangible progress. Anybody operating with a theory of leadership that assumes that experts know what is best, and that then the leadership problem is basically a sales problem in persuasion, is in our experience doomed at best to selling partial solutions at high cost.

Adaptive challenges are typically grounded in the complexity of values, beliefs, and loyalties rather than technical complexity and stir up intense emotions rather than dispassionate analysis. For these reasons, organizations often avoid addressing the value-laden aspects and try to get through the issue with a technical fix. For example, we have worked with health-care organizations that have tried to contain costs by introducing new technology, rather than looking at the highly valued processes and procedures that contribute to the problem. Typically, the new technology has created its own set of adaptive issues (e.g., medical personnel who do not want to give up face-to-face patient contact in favor of e-mail) and has not produced the desired cost savings. One way you know that there is an adaptive challenge facing your organization or community is that the problem persists even after a series of attempted technical fixes.

But even when people feel a genuine interest in naming the adaptive challenge, doing so is difficult. People are enmeshed in their defaults, and it’s difficult to gain the balcony perspective needed to more completely define the problem.

As with just about everything else in the world there are balances that need to be sought when solving problems. It takes and open mind and if leadership involves will and skill, then leadership requires the engagement of what goes on both above and below the neck. Courage requires all of you: heart, mind, spirit, and guts. And skill requires learning new competencies, with your brain training your body to become proficient at new techniques of diagnosis and action.

The recurring question, however, is this: how does one teach in an adaptive leadership environment? What are the “how to” aspects of implementing the theory behind adaptive leadership? Perhaps most importantly, how does a trainer approach leader development using this philosophy?

This last question is of particular importance to homeland security (law enforcement, emergency medical, fire and security) in entry-level, advanced and continuing education and training programs. It is easy to proclaim the need to build adaptive leaders, but it is quite another matter to achieve the desired outcome.

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership provides a “how to” guide for leader development and instruction within today’s environment. This methodology emphasizes nurturing, effective decision-making and adaptability through experiential learning. In keeping with an outcomes-based approach to training, this encourages experimentation and innovation when exploring solutions.

I highly recommend “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and The World” for law enforcement and security.

Stay Oriented!