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Adaptive Leadership


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In partnership with

~1.5 HOURS

Congratulations! This is the last module of An experiment, whether done by a scientist,
the course. So far youve learned the a marketer or yourself in tackling an
importance of getting on the balcony to see adaptive challenge, must start with a
the leadership gap, analyzed factions to hypothesis. Think of the diagnostic work
understand whose work is it? and youve done in the first three modules of this
distinguished between adaptive and course as hypotheses youve created and are
technical work so you dont waste time and now going to test on the dance floor.
resources solving the wrong problem
perfectly. In this module, youll design an experiment
for your own challenge to try out.
Now its time to get back on the dance floor
and experiment with a new kind of We are in this particular world right now by
dancing. chance. Why do we think that this is a good
spot? What happened in the history of
education or medicine that got us to this
good place? Why cant we imagine that
As you know, adaptive challenges cant be there are much better places? Every time
solved like a technical problem since the we dont take steps to make the world a
solution is unknown. Fortunately, theres a better place, we are kind of at fault. We are
tried and true way to approach this taking the default option and assuming that
situation. Experimentation. what we have right now is somehow ok or
ordained or the state of the world.
Like a scientist, who works toward
discovering unknowns, experimentation Really, we are just here by some dumb luck.
means making a hypothesis, testing it, We could have been in a world without
Penicillin just as easily as the world that we
updating it and testing again. Adaptive
are in right now. So instead of taking the
experiments follow a similar approach
state of the world as a given, we have to
with a twist. imagine that there are much, much better
states to arrive at. I dont feel comfortable
Because the people with the problem are not testing those other (possible states)...
the problem, the experimenting on an Every time we dont do experiments, were
adaptive challenges is itself an act of cheating people a little bit by just giving
mobilization. That is, the factions involved them something based on intuition and not
enact the solution through their active based on data. I think we need to be much
search for one. This is the unique part more thoughtful about our obligation for
about the experiments you will be designing future generations.
to run on the dance floor. - Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and
behavioral economics at Duke University

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As you get ready to act, you might find WHY IT FEELS RISKY AND WHAT IT MEANS
yourself having second thoughts. Do I TO MODULATE THE RISK
understand the situation sufficiently? Do I You take people out of their comfort zone
care enough to even make the time? Can I and raise the heat when you call attention
afford to take a risk? More importantly, can to tough questions, surface a deep value
I afford not to? contradiction, or draw peoples sense of
responsibility beyond their current norms
Exercising leadership is risky. Thats why and job description.
we seldom see it. Readying yourself and
others requires understanding what hold us The launch of even small experiment can
back from taking the first step, and what introduce disorientation, frustration,
modulating the risk looks like once youve tension or even some conflict as people
begun. begin to face an issue theyd rather avoid.

WHAT HOLDS US BACK As you can imagine, in such environments

Here are common things that can hold you where people feel discomfort and perceive
back from summoning courage for the work inherit risks, you need to be present and
of leadership: compassionate to the pain or confusion,
taking care that it doesnt get too high. At
+ Loyalties to people who may not the same time, as someone practicing
believe you are doing the right adaptive leadership, you need to be aware of
thing. The people you depend on and that fact that without some level of tension
who depend on you can feel disappointed without some impetus for change people
or exposed when you act differently. will stay stuck in the status quo.
+ Fear of incompetence. Not having an
answer can make you feel like a fraud or The delicate balance between having just
intellectually vulnerable. enough heat, but not so much that things
+ Uncertainty about taking the right break down is know as the productive zone
path. of disequilibrium (PZD). Being aware of the
+ Feeling some loss of a sense of concept will help you be better prepared
comfort, security, routine, identity. modulating the risk once you begin your
+ Not having the stomach, relentless experiment on the dance floor.
persistence or patience for the time
and effort required to make change Well review the concept of PZD in detail on
happen. the next page.

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The PZD is like a pressure cooker: set the temperature and pressure too low, and you stand
no chance of transforming the ingredients in the cooker into a good meal. Set it too high,
and the cover will blow off the cookers top, releasing the ingredients of your meal across
the room.

The following graphs shows what adaptive work looks like over time.

Problems within our repertoire - technical problems - generally get resolved quickly with a
lower amount of disequilibrium and a shorter period of time. Problems outside of our
repertoire that require changing hearts and minds - adaptive problems - take more time
and require a sustained disequilibrium.

Orchestrating disequilibrium requires letting in enough heat to keep people above their
comfort zone or threshold of change, but not so much that things start to boil over past the
limit of tolerance. On the following page, well discuss more on how people avoid staying
in the PZD so that you will be better prepared on how to prevent that from happening
when you are managing the heat on the dance floor.

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Because the productive zone of disequilibrium is the space in which people have to make
tough choices, confront conflict, take risks and interrupt the status quo, there is a natural
tendency to get out of the zone. We call this work avoidance.

It takes two forms:

+ Shoot the messenger > Marginalizing the person raising the issue
+ Delegate the adaptive work > To consultants, committees or task forces
+ Attack authority > Compelling them to take the work back prematurely
+ Scapegoat > Blaming others who aren't in the room

+ Launch technical fixes > Wasting time and resources
+ Defining the problem to fit your own competence > Taking potential, creative solutions
off the table
+ Creating a proxy fight > Such as a personal or personality conflict to avoid the real issue
+ Denying the problem > Leaving it unaddressed and unresourced

Understanding that these forms of work avoidance can happen and being able to point out
when people engage in this behavior is important when you are trying to manage and
control the heat with your faction.

Use the following page to reflect on your personal experience with the PZD.

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Think about a moment in your work or personal life when you experienced a productive
zone of disequilibrium (PZD). Perhaps it was a tough conversation with a good friend that
you stuck in longer than you had to. Or feedback from a caring boss that, however accurate,
was difficult to adjust to.

What happened?

How did you feel? Did you ever get above the limit of tolerance?
If so how did the heat come down?

Did you or anyone involved engage in any work avoidance? What work avoidance behavior do
you tend to default to when faced with a tough choice?

In hindsight, were you able to stay in the PZD long enough to see progress? Or did you return
prematurely below the threshold for change? If so, how might you have handled it differently?

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One practical approach to creating ADAPTIVE WORK
productive disequilibrium is to have a Before engaging in a courageous
courageous conversation with one of the conversation, you might have to ripen the
stakeholders you need to engage. issue and ready people to take it on.

Its a technique for surfacing a tension An issue is ripe when it has peoples
inherent in the adaptive challenges while attention and is considered important. An
making sure to preserve your relationship. individual or faction is ready when there is
a willingness and capacity to do the
Watch this video featuring a courageous adaptive work.
conversation Eric facilitated at Acumen. (If
you have trouble accessing YouTube, try
watching it directly through NovoEd) READINESS

As you watch the video, pay attention to
how technical solutions and work Crisis is Group looking
avoidance are handled, as well as how the acknowledged to authority

various stakeholders are illuminated to help

understand the adaptive work. Take on the issue Need to build
directly capacity

Q: What part of the conversation do you Group looking for Group in denial
think worked well? What part might need technical
to be revisited another day? solution

Ripen adaptive Build allies and

elements partners before

Lets look at some examples from Invictus

( which tells the
story of how Nelson Mandela, newly elected
as the first black President of South Africa,
prepared his own people to take on the
(adaptive) work of rebuilding the nation
after the end of apartheid. (See more on the
following page)

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Ex 2: READYING AND RIPENING THE In both examples, you saw the need to
ADAPTIVE WORK (CONTINUED) engage in a gradual process of easing
In this first scene people into an uncomfortable state of
(, Mandela uncertainty, disorder, tension or conflict
works through a clash between his old at a pace and level thats tolerable for all
bodyguards and the new bodyguards on his involved.
security team.
Now, its your turn to imagine how you
Then, watch this scene would do that to tackle your adaptive
( in which challenge. Weve shared suggested steps to
Mandela is about to walk into a design your adaptive experiments (that
confrontation. will bring your faction and also yourself
into PZD) on the following page. Review
This last scene ( those steps and design your experiment.
shows Mandelas speech to the committee This will be the last assignment that you
that has just voted to disband the need to complete for this course.

Q: What did Mandela do to draw attention

(ripen) the issue of rebuilding the nation?
How did he help ready people? Tip: He
chose a different tactic in each scene
depending on the stakeholder.

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Here are three pieces of advice as you start For example,
thinking about your adaptive experiment. + with partners and allies: you will be
engaging with them with to see if you're
First, start small, very small. Be careful on the right track and to show you have
not to let impatience or over-ambition rush the passion to tackle the problem
you prematurely into a courageous + with troublemakers and casualties: you
conversation with a troublemaker, will gather data (including data on the
opposition or authority. Its usually better way they are currently engaged within
to start instead with a partner or ally. the system and their respective VLL) so
that youll have better insights on
"The essential ingredients of [all] potential methods to convert
struggles for justice are human beings troublemakers to allies
who, if only for a moment, if only while + with authority and opposition: first
beset with fears, step out of line and do deliver on an expectation or need they
something, however small. And even have of you and then make an ask to
the smallest, most unheroic acts adds demonstrate your mettle to stick with it
to the store of kindling that may be and build a relationship all while
ignited by some surprising maintaining a diagnostic and
circumstances into tumultuous experimental approach
- Howard Zinn, Third, know your hypothesis. By the
an American historian, playwright, time youre ready to engage with your
and social activist faction, youve already identified the gap
you are trying to narrow and have done at
Through small steps you build confidence, least one round of VLL diagnosis for the
insight and prepare to tackle the harder stakeholders in the system. You are able to
part of the challenge. articulate for each of your factions that The
reason [insert faction] might find it hard to
Second, choose your target faction narrow this gap is because they value
and objective. Generally speaking [insert value], are loyal to [insert
whoever you choose to engage with first, person/people] and might have to give up
you need to 1) deliver on an expectation or [insert loss]
need they have for you, which will help
build informal authority, 2) learn from As the last step of your adaptive experiment
them and help them learn about their VLLs, design, consider the key behavior change or
and 3) make an ask. Who you choose to ask you want your stakeholder to engage
start with will change your approach in to narrow the gap. And write down your
slightly but all of these three pieces should prediction about what will happen so you
be part of your action on the dance floor. can compare it with what actually happens.
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And here is an excerpt from The Theory Holding incompatible ideas in your head at the
Behind the Practice Chapter 2 in The same time is a little like deciding to get
Practice of Adaptive Leadership on the married. At the moment you decide that this is
value of experiments. the person you want to spend the rest of your
life with, you have to fully embrace your
Experiment and Take Smart Risks choice; you have to believe wholeheartedly
Smartly that it is the right decision. But your practical
self also knows that you probably would have
When you are dealing with adaptive fallen in love with someone else under
challenges, there is no obvious answer to the different circumstances. So how can your
question What is going on here? Trying to intended be the only right one for you? If you
define the problem at hand is a contentious treated the decision to marry this particular
act in itself. Managing this ambiguity person at this particular moment as a 5149
requires courage, tenacity, and an question rather than a 9010 question, you
experimental mind-set: you try things would never take the leap. The same paradox
out, see what happens, and make changes applies to adaptive leadership interventions.
accordingly. You have to run the experiment with
full and hopeful conviction.
When you adopt an experimental mind-set,
you actively commit to an intervention you F. Scott Fitzgerald once said that the test of a
have designed while also not letting yourself first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two
become wedded to it. That way, if it misses opposed ideas in mind at the same time and
the mark, you do not feel compelled to defend still retain the ability to function. In the
it. This mind-set also opens you to other, realm of adaptive leadership, you have
unanticipated possibilities. (You are to believe that your intervention is
undoubtedly familiar with the stories about absolutely the right thing to do at the
the ways Benjamin Franklin and Thomas moment you commit to it. But at the
Edison produced their great inventions by same time, you need to remain open to
accident, while pursuing some other the possibility that you are dead wrong.
purposes entirely.) Thinking experimentally
(The original excerpt can be found in the chapter, which is
also opens you to learning: you stay open to available here)
the possibility that you might be wrong.
Finally, an experimental mind-set facilitates An additional reading on the importance of
the iterative nature of the adaptive leadership holding hopeful conviction is also available on
process: you make an intervention based on Sashas blog, which was also shared on the
your interpretation of the situation, and you Lecture page on NovoEd.
see what happens. You use the results of your
experiment to take the next step or to make a 8/full-and-hopeful-conviction/
midcourse correction.

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Finally its your turn. Its time for you to return to your own leadership challenge. Using
the diagnostic work youve done in the previous three modules, think about the first small
experiment you would like to bring to your dance floor" by answering to the prompts below.
For assignment 4, youll be asked to submit your responses.

Questions 1: What stakeholder or faction do you plan to engage with?

Question 2: Whats the key behavior change or ask you want your stakeholder to engage in to
narrow the gap? If helpful, review the Ripeness vs. Readiness matrix on P6.

Question 3: What do you predict will happen?

After the experiment, use the space below to summarize what happened

+ When did you implement the experiment?: _________________________________

+ What happened?

+ What did you learn from the experiment?

+ What do you think is your next step to narrow the gap? Who would that be with?

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Congratulations!! You have now If you are taking this course in a team, use
completed the course on adaptive the workshop guide on P12-13 to conduct a
leadership. Here are some final thoughts team based dialog around the inputs from
from Eric. this last module (and your work on
adaptive experiment design)
I hope you're seeing
If you dont have anyone to do this with,
progress on your gap
use the discussion forum to share your
and learning helpful
ideas and seek for feedback. If you already
techniques for leading
ran your experiments, please share your
adaptive change. At
experience and your lessons.
the deepest levels,
however, we don't need techniques. We Lastly, we would love to know how this
need insight into ourselves and our course has impacted you, your team, your
"work" to help us learn and let go (i.e. organization or your community. Feel free
adapt) amidst the tensions that come to share your impact story with
from uncertainty and diversity.

Rather than seeing this tension as a

condition to be relieved, can we embrace ADDITIONAL READING ON
it as an energy to hold in our hearts?
Refusing to do so reduces our work to the
+ Fast Company: How Google Stays
kind of technical, us vs. them mentality
that's making headlines these days.
Embracing it and being open to alien
+ Medium: The Fake Solution to Fake
ideas, values and loyalties helps our work
become more spacious and generous.
+ Stanford Social Innovation Review:
Democratizing leadership is risky
The Gift of Grantee Inclusion
business. It is a non-stop experiment,
unless we blow up the lab that is
+ Environmental Leader: Adaptive
Leadership in the NYC Watershed
Thanks for your work over the last four
+ Environmental Leader: Adaptive
weeks to keep the experiment alive!
Leadership in the US Energy Sector

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The following two pages are for those of you who have decided to take this course in a team.
Please use this guide to conduct your team session. This should be approximately 2 hours
but feel free to make modifications based on your team size and availability.

1. Check In (5min)
2. Discussion on the Reading (20min)
3. Peer Advising Adaptive Experiment Design (20min per person)
4. Ahas (20min)

1: CHECK IN (5min)
Use this time to prepare for your team discussion. Use the suggested questions to get
the teams pulse:
How are you feeling today? Towards the last discussion?
What if anything might make it difficult for you to be fully present today?


Below are suggested discussion prompts to use in your team. You may choose any of
these or pick something based on the members interests.

Suggested discussion topics:

1. Recall the statement on P1 Because the people with the problem are the
problem, the experimenting on an adaptive challenges is itself an act of
mobilization. What was your initial reaction or thought when you first read this
2. What was your key takeaway from this reading on the concept of PZD? What part
was new? What part did you not fully understand? Spend time sharing your work
on the PZD worksheet on P5 as well
3. What was your key takeaway from the section on work avoidance in the
reading? If youve encountered any moment professionally or personally where
people have effectively avoided work avoidance among stakeholders, share
how that was done. Also discuss in teams how to avoid work avoidance
effectively within an organization or in community

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In your team, take turns presenting your work for assignment 4 (adaptive experiment
ideas) and get feedback from your peers. We suggest taking 20min for each peer
advising session. If your team is large, you may want to break up into smaller teams so
that you dont run over time.
If anyone has already tried their experiment on their dance floor, discuss the next step.
If anyone needs help thinking about their first small experiment to test the waters, they
should seek advice from peers so they can complete the assignment.

4: AHAS (15min)
Take 1-2 minutes to think about your Aha from this team work or from the entire course
work. Were you able to gain new perspectives from your teammates? What are the
parting thoughts from the team discussion? Are there any particular insights shared by
your teammates that you want to highlight and thank them for?


Spend the rest of the time sharing your Ahas with each other.


Congratulations!! Consider taking team photos and sharing them on the discussion
forum. You are one of the more committed +Acumen community members who have
enriched your learning experience by going through the course with a dedicated


Please make sure everyone in your team has completed their post-course survey that is
available on the course platform. We read all of your input to fine-stune this course
material on a ongoing basis.

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