How I stumbled across “adaptive design” at my Harvard reunion
I have always ignored the class reunion emails from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, which I attended for two of the most eye-opening years of my life. But this year’s pitch was different. I saw that one of my favorite professors, Ron Heifetz, was inviting all his students (30+ years worth) to return to school for a refresher and networking weekend on Adaptive Leadership. That caught my attention.
How could I forget the young, renegade, cello-playing doctor, who talked his way into a one-year pilot in 1983 at New England’s seat of pedagogic hubris. As a nothing-to-lose young journalist, I wasn’t afraid of the rumors that we would be lab rats for an untested, uncomfortable experiment. It turned out that 100 of my classmates felt the same way, perhaps an early example of the misalignment of Academy concerns and consumers’ changing learning needs. So, along with mid-career students who were Army captains, police chiefs and political exiles from around the world, as well as other early career idealists like myself, I plunged into Heifetz’s first ever class. 33 years later (I know, that’s a lot of years), I can still remember having to get up and sing to find the personal narrative inside me, and learning how to observe and interpret group dynamics to visualize how I might intervene on behalf of my organization’s goals.
Today, after many career twists, I run the Education Design Lab, where we’re immersed in how to help academic institutions face adaptive challenges. We use design thinking and related tools to create disciplined collaborative processes towards models and solutions to expand modes of teaching and learning. Design thinking is well-suited to the higher education space as it provides a useful way to stay focused on student needs, but also offers faculty and administrators safe spaces to co-create across silos and to quickly iterate solutions to test and scale.
But where design thinking can fall short is in making good designs stick. Even when they succeed in co-creating solutions with all stakeholders in mind, our partners cite institutional culture as the single biggest hurdle to selling and scaling innovation. Over the past year, we have built in “change leadership” and “strategic communications” training and innovation culture diagnostics, but it’s not enough for higher ed institutions that have a mind of their own. As Heifetz quotes his colleague Jeff Lawrence, “There is no such thing as a dysfunctional organization because every organization is perfectly aligned to achieve the results it currently gets.”
But where design thinking can fall short is in making good designs stick.
In Heifetz’s parlance, now shared by hundreds of acolytes who are teaching adaptive leadership around the world, any leader selling change, even incremental change, has to “get on the balcony” to see the dynamics of how the idea, objective or problem is moving or morphing and ask “What is my role in this?” You have to push yourself to observe, interpret and intervene, and discern the difference in your situation between authority and leadership, influence and power. In this training, you learn to interpret the group’s behavior and choreograph your paths of influence. Whether or not you have authority or power, you learn to “turn up the heat” (but not too much), to “court the uncommitted,” to, in effect, build a movement for your cause.
While adaptive leadership is focused on the individual leader, design thinking is looking for solutions that the group can produce by following a usually democratic creative process. A research phase filters the patterns of users, specifically their needs and behaviors. The patterns dictate the design criteria for solutions. The process embraces a bias toward action, the theory that getting a prototype down on paper and testing it with users is the best way to move a group toward elegant solutions. The focus on co-creation helps to engage stakeholders; in the best cases it also helps to build a more organic movement. So, both approaches start with a diagnostic phase, one with the needs of hundreds or millions of end users in mind, one with the actor sizing up group dynamics to influence outcomes.
So, both of these are important. It’s the “what” and the “how”, right? It led me to wonder on the way to the airport after the conference, can one process be overlaid on the other?
While adaptive leadership is focused on the individual leader, design thinking is looking for solutions that the group can produce by following a usually democratic creative process.
And then I remembered that Marty Linsky, another of my Kennedy School professors, mentioned that he wrote a piece to begin to address this very possibility. I read the article on the plane and saw that he, an adaptive leadership expert, and a colleague, Maya Bernstein, a design thinking expert, suggest two possible approaches, which they artfully label as a hybrid: adaptive design. I am initially drawn to the first approach, which recommends, in effect, using the leadership methodology to implement what the design process reveals. I think it will be less complicated and therefore a cleaner, more coherent design for participants to follow. The second approach they describe suggests a more cyclical process weaving design thinking and adaptive leadership tools together all the way through. Sounds like ninja black belt stuff: it could produce remarkable results, but may be suited for the advanced practitioner. Linsky repeatedly told us it’s early days, he is just thinking about a merger of these ideas, but he sees promise. And so do we. I am anxious to weave the thinking into several innovation and change leadership processes we are designing with universities.
A key first principles question at the Harvard weekend…Can we even teach this kind of leadership?
Many of the wonkiest among us spent Saturday night working through the research of Harvard School of Education professor Robert Kegan and built upon by lecturer Tim O’Brien, on five levels of leadership maturity and data that suggests that, with experiential learning, an adult can grow to the next level. But the learner has to be pushed into what Heifetz calls the “zone of disequilibrium.” Teachable moments come from being challenged, the art of this kind of leadership training is how to provide the right dose of challenges and supports so that learners don’t go over the edge or give up. We talked about how this approach might inform how you teach high school students or undergraduates leadership development vs. adults, very instructive conversation for our design challenge on 21st century skills, particularly the Catalyst badge that Georgetown University is developing.
Can we even teach this kind of leadership?
All of this gave the 200 of us food for thought as we listened to one Kennedy School fellow alumnus, George Papandreou, address our group. He used adaptive leadership practices, when, as Foreign Minister of Greece, he normalized relations with a longtime enemy, Turkey. But when he became prime minister during the 2009 Greek economic crisis, everything moved too quickly. There really wasn’t time to observe, interpret and intervene. It was dizzying on the balcony. And he didn’t like the path he saw. He told us he felt he had no choice but to sacrifice his role and step down to save his country. Which reminds me to end on the tidbit we heard from Heifetz and Linsky: that the word “leader” originates from the Indo-European root word “leit,” the name of the person who carries the flag for an army going into battle. That person usually dies in the enemy attack, but sizes up the danger for the rest of the army.
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