Adaptive Leadership for Nonprofits

Man at iPad

Ronald Heifetz calls the tough, seemingly recalcitrant problems facing organizations and society today adaptive practice or adaptive work. According to Heifetz, “adaptive work is required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge.” Leadership must be exercised by many people at multiple levels in an organization for progress to be made on tough problems. Everyone in the system must learn new ways to work to make the change sustainable. Heifetz calls other types of work technical. With technical work, the solution is already known and simply needs to be applied to the problem, usually by a person with authority.

Having authority is necessary but insufficient to exercise leadership and mobilize adaptive work. Authority is a role, while leadership is an activity that can be taken up by those with formal or informal authority. Heifetz reminds us that the functions of authority are to provide direction, protection, role orientation, control of conflict and shaping of norms. But adaptive work requires using the roles of authority with a new focus. Adaptive work requires experiments, new discoveries and adjustments from numerous places within the organization. According to Heifetz, the single most common source of leadership failure is treating adaptive challenges like technical problems. Authority used alone in a command and control fashion is about gaining compliance where authority with a new focus to mobilize leadership is about gaining commitment to do the work.

The fundamental skill in the Adaptive Leadership model is “getting on the balcony” or learning to reflect in action as well as learning to be part of “the dance” of the system. Recognizing the gap or the tension between the present and the unknown future helps in identifying the focus for the adaptive work. People will predictably avoid the work if the distress gets too high (or too low) and the person exercising leadership must recognize when this occurs and refocus the system on the work with an appropriate intervention. This intervention often takes the form of a powerful question. To accomplish adaptive work the individuals in the system must do the work and be the change. This requires difficult conversations, careful listening, mourning the losses and creating the new way of working together. Authorities exercising leadership need to carefully and intentionally “give the work back to the people at a rate they can tolerate.” The adaptive model is powerful because it is about what people do (group dynamics) and about what people can do (make progress on really difficult issues).

How is Adaptive Practice Relevant

Adaptive practice is especially useful for nonprofits with lean budgets because it helps nonprofits to move forward ideas and to engage constituents and stakeholders that are key in helping nonprofits maintain services under tight financial conditions. Quick fixes — as Heifetz describes, “technical work” — can provide short-term relief to budget woes. On the other hand, adaptive work looks at long term fixes that both respond to the current situation and address the underlying changes to the nonprofit environment.

Technical-leaning questions around financial stability can lead to quick fixes:

  • What policies will help increase financial stability?
  • What grants can we seek over the next 6 months?
  • Do we have the capacity to do another fundraising event this year?
  • How long can we stretch our current funding if we limit expenses?

Adaptive-leaning questions around financial stability can lead to long term solutions:

  • Is our current business model the best means for ensuring a financially viable organization? If not, what model would work better?
  • What service cost-structures would appeal to our customers? What would they be willing to pay for?
  • What competitors’ programs could make us irrelevant? How? What can we learn from them?

Now is the time for nonprofit leaders, regardless of their role or position in an organization, to identify the adaptive work and to bring that work forward as central to organizational success. This invites all staff, volunteers, board and stakeholders who are passionate about the work to define effective ways to meet the future that is emerging. Adaptive work is for everyone and can help develop more effective collaborations within organizations as well as with other nonprofits and key constituencies.