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Technical and Adaptive Change

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Technical or Adaptive Problems

In addressing Rev. Whitney Brown’s leadership, Seaside’s mem­bers had come down on one of two sides—Whitney’s managerial skills needed attention or his personal qualities were the heart of the problem. In their book Leadership on the Line: Staying

Rocking the Emotional Boat                                                                      /127

Alive through the Dangers ofLeading, Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky, professors at Harvard University, distinguish between what they call technical and adaptive problems. Each problem requires a different response. Confusing the two types of prob­lems will result in ineffective responses. When we are dealing with technical problems, we use know-how and follow a set of procedures. Adaptive problems, however, involve challenges to deeply held values and well-entrenched attitudes. They require new learning.3

Technical Problems

•    Problems are amenable to solutions.

•    People already know what to do and how to do it.

•    Leaders know the answer and take corrective action.

•    Problems are not trivial, but solutions are within a person’s abilities.

•    Solutions are not necessarily easy, but expertise and knowl­edge are available.

Adaptive Problems

•    Problems demand change in values, attitudes, and behaviors.

•    People’s hearts and minds need to change, not only their likes and dislikes.

•    Problems surface that no existing technical expertise can solve.

•    Leaders ask questions that challenge people’s beliefs.

•    Problems require a mindset shift that will result in some loss, especially for people who benefited from previous circumstances or patterns.

•    People are challenged to use their competence to bring about new solutions. Leaders bring people’s attention to the problem and expect them to take responsibility for it.

  • Problem solving involves new experiments, uncertainty, and loss.

  128                                                                 THE LEADER’S CHALLENGES

The members of Seaside Congregation had to treat the problem of Whitney Brown’s behavior. The managerial propo­nents had a technical view: “The presenting problem is clear and there’s a fix for it.” Members wanted to send Whitney to a few management workshops, thinking that would solve the problem. Some others also regarded the problem as a technical one, sug­gesting Whitney be relieved of all management responsibilities and become the preaching, teaching, and visioning pastor. Oth­ers proposed another technical solution by asking the unhappy staff members to leave and the frustrated leaders to resign. All of these solutions are familiar ways to handle problems.

A core of congregation leaders, however, sought adaptive solutions, believing the situation demanded more than a few cosmetics: “It’s clinical. Behavioral changes are necessary. New learning has to take place.” In reality, they were asking Whitney Brown to do what they themselves had done. They had to adapt. They had to change their perspective about Whitney Brown. Reed Price, the strong advocate for Whitney, could no longer ignore the harmful behavior of his beloved pastor and confronted him.

To recognize and treat a problem as an adaptive challenge will rock the emotional boat. Leaders cannot expect members to change without objection. People expect their leaders to offer certainty, not to disturb them with unknowns. Likewise, people expect their leaders to secure order rather than confront them with disturbing choices. Congregational members expect their leaders to supply straightforward solutions that will quickly restore balance. When leaders treat problems as adaptive ones, they receive few accolades from members. But without the willingness to challenge people’s expectations of quick and easy solutions, a leader will be subservient to those expectations. People don’t want leaders to upset them with adaptive solutions that involve change, learning, loss, and uncertainty~ However, if no behavior pattern or viewpoint has significantly changed

Rocking the Emotional Boat                                                                      129

and deep problems have not been addressed, the problems will persist and the boat must be rocked.

Many excellent examples of the technical/adaptive un­derstanding of problems come from medical history. Sherwin Nuland, clinical professor of surgery at Yale University, tells the incredible story of how medicine confused these two types of problems in the longstanding treatment of an illness. For thou­sands of years, women were dying of a fever at childbirth. The prevailing opinion about its cause was so entrenched that new theories were ridiculed or easily dismissed. Here’s the setting:

The physicians and nurses caring for the girl were all too familiar with the disease that took her young life. In 1847, one of every six mothers, like this young woman, was dying in the First Division of the Allgemeine Krankenhaus. The experience in this Vienna hospital was not unique; it was happening in hospitals throughout Europe. Childhood fever was rampant.

Twenty-two hundred years before, the disease had been described in the Hippocratic volume called Epidemics. Even at that time, the cause of the disease was thought to be found in some stagnant or putrefied material whose source was within the body of the patient herself. An examiner of the disease, Dr. John Clarke (1793) referred to the disease as puerperal fever (puer = “child” and parare = “to bring forth”), believing it was contagious, though this represented a minority viewpoint.

Oliver Wendell Holmes undertook a study of the problem of the transmission of the fever, thinking it had infectious quali­ties and that physicians might be one of the carriers. But he was dismissed when an older doctor called his study “the meandering of a sophomore.”

Puerperal fever continued to ravage the lives of young moth­ers because no one recognized the source—the hands of the physicians battling to prevent it. Doctors prior to delivery would examine cadavers and, because they did not sterilize their hands, they would bring foul particles from the lab to the clinic.

Ignac Semmelweiss started a new procedure, requiring medi­cal students to wash their hands in a sanitizing solution before making an examination of the mother-to-be. The mortality rate declined. He published his results in a book that was rejected because his observation contradicted current medical beliefs, which blamed disease not on germs but to an imbalance of the “humors” in the body. Trivializing Semmelweiss’s claims, the su­pervisor of the Allgemeine Krankenhaus attributed the improve­ment in statistics to a new ventilating system in the hospital. The situation required an adaptive response (integrating new learning) but received a technical one (the ventilating system). If Semmelweiss’s theory had held in medical practice at that time, those who had believed otherwise would have experienced losses and casualties, such as credibility and authority.4

Resistance to Adaptive Change

Some members of the 19th-century European medical establish­ment had become so invested in their theory that new evidence could not be tolerated. “Adaptive change stimulates resistance,” note Heifetz and Linsky, “because it challenges people’s habits, beliefs, and values.”5 The medical establishment’s beliefs about the cause of disease would have been jeopardized. Congregations will put up a struggle against taking new action, but also will struggle against believing embarrassing news, upsetting mes­sages, and shocking reports. When leaders upset the emotional system, they can’t be surprised if people think their ideas are like “the meandering of a sophomore” or if people dismiss them by referring to their version of the Ailgemeine Krankenhaus ven­tilating system. At highly anxious times, people regress. Their survival patterns are established, very little is negotiable. Once the amygdala learns its lessons, learning stops. Employing primi­tive defense mechanisms, the agitated can see red but cannot see clearly. Though we may charge these resisters with being narrow-minded or parochial, they represent a human truth. No one likes to change because loss of some type will occur.


(sensory lobes)


New learning

Right Hemisphere

Corpus Callosum

(bridge between two hemispheres)

The Left and Right Hemispheres of the Brain

Returning to an examination of the functioning of the brain, we can better understand how natural it is to resist change. Our neocortex (thinking brain) is divided into two hemispheres, which play different but complimentary roles in learning. The right hemisphere is the hemisphere of novelty, exploration, and the unfamiliar; the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of routine, the storage of useful knowledge, and the known. All learning, therefore, begins on the right and proceeds to the left. One of the important questions that looms for the brain is, “Have I confronted this before?” If it has not, the right hemisphere of the brain, organized fundamentally to process novelty, will light up. On sight of a friend, the left hemisphere of the brain becomes active. Brain imaging will show a trained musician processing music in the left hemisphere and a novice activating the right hemisphere.

I know that most men. . . can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.


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