Volume 121, February 2013: Adaptive vs. Technical Challenges

Keyzine: An E-zine for Leaders about the People Side of Business

This is a monthly electronic magazine for anyone who wants to be a better leader, coach, facilitator, or simply, to tune up their people skills. It is a complimentary publication, devoted to the next evolution of Quality Thinking.

Publisher: © Key Associates, LLC, 2010 ISSN # 1545-8873

“Because the answers to adaptive challenges are not known, it is important to consider next steps as “experiments’ that will yield insights.” — Kristin von Donop

The Industrial Age was largely characterized by manual workers toiling in manufacturing and other labor-intensive fields. We are now in a Socio-technological Age, characterized by knowledge workers and their intellectual abilities. Where technical solutions prevailed before, we are now facing adaptive challenges — the human component centered on values and beliefs, ways of being, identity, and heart. A classic error is treating adaptive challenges as technical ones. Technical problems are clearly defined and have known solutions; they are solved by providing information, defining roles, setting standards, etc. Adaptive challenges require more innovative approaches.

To deal with adaptive challenges, first unearth the values that support a person’s position, seeing how some can be preserved and others are expendable. Then identify practices that are core to the future and determine if there are conflicts that will impede their accomplishment.

Kurt Lewin, as represented in Marrow (1977), created a tool called Force Field Analysis. Setting up a T-bar, with Driving Forces on the left and Restraining Forces on the right, an organization (or individual) can examine its Present State and what drives/restrains it from achieving an Ideal Future State. While driving harder is the usual management solution, weakening the Restraining Forces (or turning them into Driving Forces) is far more effective.

Practice Point

Resist authoritative solutions and practice the process of coaching. Be curious about what makes others tick--their loyalties, interests, and communities they serve. Find out what they care about and cast a bold vision for them. Use the Force Field Analysis tool to identify Drivers and Restrainers, then encourage smart experimentation to test new practices.


Marrow, A.V. The Practical Theorist: The Life and Work of Kurt Lewin. NY: Teachers College Press, Columbia University, 1977.


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