Harbinger Consultants

Culture + Complexity + Change

LEARNING | Adaptive Leadership Intensive

Social Leadership Australia, an arm of the Benevolent Society, presented an Adaptive Leadership Intensive over four days, 18-21 March 2014. The Intensive was led by three facilitators and attended by 14 people from NGO, government and private sectors. Linda attended in her capacity as Deputy Chair of RDA Brisbane. She found the program to highly aligned to the way we work at Harbinger with clients, groups and communities.

The key elements of the program were:

  1. Developing understanding of adaptive leadership and ‘adaptive work’ including power and authority
  2. Developing practice of adaptive work through a range of techniques and situations
  3. Working on a context specific ‘adaptive challenge’ applying the techniques, ideas and language shared during the program

As her attendance was being paid for by RDA Brisbane, Linda developed an adaptive challenge related to that organisation. The program operated under Chatham House rules as it was understood that participants would at times raise confidential matters. Caution and care was exercised by all participants in framing and discussing their adaptive challenge so that it could be discussed constructively.

The program is built on the proposition that leadership starts with a question (though not just any question). It was not focusing on a more traditional approach to leadership based on hierarchy or position, but rather on willingness to engage with and pursue systemic change.

Some Definitions

Adaptive work is defined as “holding people through a sustained period of disequilibrium during which they identify what cultural DNA to conserve and discard, and invent and discover the new cultural DNA that will enable them to thrive anew i.e. the learning process through which people in a system achieve a successful adaptation”.

Adaptive challenge is defined as “the gap between the values people stand for (that constitute thriving) and the reality that they face (their current lack of capacity to realise those values in their environment”.

Key Points

  • An adaptive challenge involves a system (such as an organisation or community), requires systemic change or learning (inclusive and collaborative), and involves some degree of conflict (working with diversity and competition)
  • Purpose underpins adaptive work – a sense of direction and contribution that provides meaningful orientation to a set of activities in organisational and political life
  • Recognising the difference between technical work and adaptive work. Organisations often apply ‘technical solutions’ (busywork, activities etc) when ‘adaptive work’ (system change, learning etc) is required. Consequently problems remain unchanged i.e. they continue to continue.
  • Generally organisations dislike adaptive work because it is disruptive and unsettling. Consequently, ‘work avoidance’ occurs. This can mean people continue to focus on ineffectual technical solutions, and treat adaptive challenges as technical problems. Work avoidance refers to avoiding adaptive work it does not mean ‘not working’.  That is, people are usually busy, even overworked, in pursuing and applying technical solutions to avoid adaptive work/challenges. Technical solutions have their place, but organisations over rely on them and default to them.
  • Work avoidance also tends to provoke two behaviours: divert attention from the problem, such as denying or personalising; and displacing responsibility, such as scapegoating, attacking and deferring.
  • Individuals who endeavour to mobilise adaptive work (i.e. exercise adaptive leadership) can be marginalised, ‘assassinated’, bullied etc. People/teams like to do things the way they have always done them, often leaping to action without observing and diagnosing problems or issues with a view to systemic change.

On Day Three of the program, learning was undertaken in-house at MultiLink in Logan, where participants spoke with several service providers including Mariae Leckie (CEO, RDA Logan & Redland) who provided insight to how her RDA works as part of the service ecology of the area, playing a dynamic cross-sectoral facilitation, coordination and engagement role. Here I heard an affirmation of the 360 degree agenda of RDAs, despite its challenges, and the value of an integrated approach to place based or regional issues recognising the complexity and interrelationships of culture, social, economic and environmental issues. It was a surprise to see an RDA colleague as part of the program, but an affirmation of the excellent work RDAs are doing in their regions.

All participants in the program received a copy of Geoff Aigner and Liz Skelton’s recent book, The Australian Leadership Paradox: What it takes to lead in the lucky country, which has received high praise from diverse political, community and business leaders.

Held at Cedar Creek Lodges, adjacent to Mt Tamborine National Park, the learnings were enhanced by daily bushwalking and explorations in surroundings that promoted reflection and rejuvenation. Linda will continue to be involved with Social Leadership Australia as part of the Alumni, which acts as a community of practice and offers ongoing networking and professional development opportunities.


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