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Leading adaptive change

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Archives / 2005 / July/August



Leading adaptive change

Greg Schaller
Greg Schaller, D.Min., is pastor of the Kent Seventh-day Adventist Church, Covington, Washington, United States.



Leading change is dangerous work. Consider Mr. Boisjoly. The day before the space shuttle blew up in 1986, Mr. Boisjoly, an engineer for a NASA supplier, warned his superiors that the shuttle's O-rings might fail in extreme cold. Like others before him, Boisjoly was punished for his honesty. He lost not only his job but his career. Sherrpn Watkins spotted accounting irregularities at the energy firm Enron and spoke up—only to be banished to a windowless office. 1 Also, keep in mind Jesus, who challenged the expectations of the Pharisees. For His efforts, they "were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him" (Mark 14:1, NASB).

As we lead change, we will encounter resistance. As we encounter the resistance, it is important to remember that people do not resist change as much as they resist loss. As leaders we may see with clarity the promise of progress and the movement toward the next level, while others may see with equal clarity the losses you as a leader are asking them to accept. Thus, to successfully lead a group to change depends on having the people who are actually dealing with the situation internalize the need and desire for that change.2

So, how does a leader successfully lead change and stay alive in the process?

Surfacing issues

Much of our leadership activity involves identifying and solving problems. We can categorize problems as either technical or adaptive.

Technical issues have clearly defined problems and solutions. Several examples are the arrangements needed to open the church up for meetings a half hour early, or how to relate to a group to whom you may be renting out your church, or planning for a church retreat. You can address technical challenges routinely by applying conventional wisdom, precedents, and policies. Leading change would be much easier if all problems were clearly known and the solutions self-evident.

Adaptive problems, on the other hand, tend to be complex, and the real issues may be more subtle or submerged. Further, after you clearly define the problem, the solutions require new learning, discoveries, and adjustments. The deeper the change and new learning required, the greater the resistance, and thus the greater risk for those who lead.3

For example, adaptive issues could involve obstructions blocking people and the church body from forming deeper relationships with God, a local church's need to engage and win postmodern people, declining church attendance, or barriers to mobilizing spiritual gifts, to name a few. Because of the complexity of these issues, teamwork is needed. A pastor or church administrator must take some risk by releasing control and making himself or herself vulnerable to the wisdom of the group, while using every appropriate leadership skill to keep people focused on the solutions to the problem.

One vital step to gathering group input for adaptive problem-solving work is to become an "all news organization." An all news organization hears not just the good news but also the bad. To make such "news" gathering effective, a leader cannot allow members of the group to mislabel dissent as disloyalty.

Leadership sage Warren Bennis pinpoints the "all-too-common failure [of groups] to recognize that internal dissent is not itself a crisis, but rather priceless insurance against disaster."4 Counterviewpoints help working groups consider issues from a number of perspectives as they attempt to identify the central adaptive issue. A group must decide if it can handle putting "skunks" on top of the table for discussion. Can "the twenty-ton elephant" be freely and safely talked about?

Our global church faces many issues, ranging from complex race relations to realigning church processes and structures. Local churches and conferences encounter a full range of murky challenges too.

Leaders face the huge temptation to treat adaptive issues as technical problems by quickly assuming what the problem is and suggesting a routine solution. However, with adaptive problems, competent leadership suspends assumptions, control, and the desire to direct the discussion toward a predetermined outcome. This type of open discussion occurs best in what I call a crucible.

Creating crucibles

In steel mills a crucible is a container able to withstand immense heat so that it is able to hold red-hot steel. Adaptive work calls for the creation of crucibles that can hold people's real issues while still being able to withstand intense dialogue about unclear problems. To create such a container, a leader must make sure people feel safe and empowered to speak freely. Otherwise, they will speak the party line only or default to group thinking.

A crucible can, for example, be a leadership team, elders' group, church board, task force, or church summit. A further illustrative example of a working crucible is the series of church board sessions we used to address the adaptive issue of our lack of vision, values, and goals.

First, our group moved to recognize the importance of vision. The group painfully probed into how this vision drift had occurred. We then agreed that we needed to reestablish a sense of direction and find a forum for the discussion. We weren't initially sure how to proceed, but together we identified our next action step.

We convened three churchwide summits, encouraging the whole church to discuss our directional issues.

At the first summit, we gained perspective by discussing the ups and downs of the church's history. Some of the story was painful, but we learned from it. At the second summit, people opened up with their hopes and dreams for the future, which we translated into a succinctly stated vision. At the third summit, we focused on forming a set of shared goals.

As a consultant led the summits and the people did the work, I noticed resistance to the called-for change reducing significantly. Those at the summits struggled through the process and opened themselves up to change!

A leader in such a process must take the risk of making himself or herself vulnerable to the group's wisdom as he or she releases control of input. This has a way of resulting in the leading of the Holy Spirit within the church body.

Adjusting the heat

People want order and calm. They fear the opposite. But without healthy dissatisfaction and productive anxiety, there is no felt need for change.5 Raising questions to challenge the status quo generates tension and uneasiness. It produces heat by surfacing gaps between stated values and real actions, between hidden conflicts and challenging organizational culture.

Groups can take only so much heat before they melt down. The wise leader must monitor the group's temperature range.

As issues are placed into a crucible, a leader may raise the heat by judiciously bringing attention to hard issues and keeping the group focused upon them. Let people feel the urgency of the issues, the responsibility of struggling with the problem. This raises tension.

Martin Luther King Jr. did this on a national scale with his nonviolent marches. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Reformer Martin Luther all found ways to raise people's tension level so they would address adaptive change.

People almost always want the heat and tension turned down. They may falsely expect leaders to protect them from struggling with difficult problems. Leadership activity, however, focuses people's attention on key issues.

To keep the crucible from boiling over, a leader may use strategies for lowering the heat. Examples of these strategies are addressing fears, reassuring the group, and slowing down the pace and frequency of addressing such heat-raising issues. But a wise leader is careful not to lower the tension so far that people are lulled into inaction! It is the infusion of urgency that encourages people to do this difficult work.


Once a group locates, defines, and agrees upon the problem, it can start finding solutions. Creative brainstorming helps a group consider a wide range of alternatives.6 To brain storm successfully, the group must first separate the act of inventing from the act of judging.

In the inventing process, any vocalized judgment of the merit of ideas must be withheld. The group must agree on a "no criticism" rule. The environment must be safe for creative expression. Everyone is an equal play er at the table. The goal is to expand— not limit—the number of options.

IDEO, a world-leading design firm, brainstorms by building on the ideas of others, attempting to get 100 solutions in a one-hour session, and encouraging wild ideas.7 The group discusses and evaluates ideas only after the brainstorming session ends.

Once the brainstorming session concludes, your group can evaluate the most promising solutions. People can share what they like about an idea and what might make it even better. Some groups come into consensus around a solution or combination of solutions. Other groups prioritize by voting for the top two or three solutions.


Moving your group's brainstorming solutions into action can be challenging. Prototypes can make the possibilities for change much greater.

Prototypes are rough models of your newly designed approach. Prototypes allow you to fail early and learn quickly.

The auto maker Lexus, when testing the safety of a new model, crashes more than a hundred prototypes into walls and then conducts extensive safety tests and makes adjustments before the new model goes into production. Prototyping lets you clarify solutions so others can see them and share feedback.

For example, in a church I formerly pastored, we decided to prototype a second alternative worship service. This prototype service lasted only 50 minutes and included contemporary worship music, prayer, and a message. After each service we sought intense feedback, all before making a final decision. Remember the saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words"? Well, a good prototype is worth a thousand pictures.

Staying alive

The difficult work in moving for ward with change often means that some are disappointed. Not everyone wins. Casualties occur. Sometimes even leaders are among those casualties. This hard fact keeps many people from stepping up to take on the challenges of effective leadership.

The perils of leading change are not so much in grasping leadership methods but in taking risks. To lead is to live dangerously because a leader sometimes has to challenge what people hold dear. People push back when their church system begins to introduce even the idea of change. People may push you as a leader aside, under mine you, and marginalize you. So when leaders are challenged, they often count the cost—and hesitate.

So how does a leader stay in the game? How do you withstand the distress without being numbed and desensitized to the very people you are called to lead?

You can stay alive in leadership by practicing an action/reflection pattern. To play smart professional American football, for example, teams take a break on Monday to watch on film how well they played Sunday's game. As they watch, they see patterns emerge. They note what plays went well and where plays fell apart. Teams also observe the plays of the other team. Reflecting on yesterday's game helps players figure out how to improve their play.

Likewise, leaders need to disengage themselves from the change process and gather perspective. This may be done by journaling, thinking in solitude, praying for extended times, and going on mini retreats. Jesus participated in this reflective pattern with His disciples when He invited them to come apart and rest a while. This action/reflection pattern helps us to stay alive in leadership.

To stay alive in leadership, a leader also needs confidants.

Confidants are people with whom you can share your heart and mind unreservedly. Good confidants can provide sound feedback and provide perspective while keeping your best interests in mind. A true confidant cares more about you than the role you play. Mature Christian confidants are priceless people who help keep you alive while you lead seasons of change.

Another secret to staying alive in leadership is to reduce the extent to which you become the target of people's frustrations. The best way to stay out of range is to give the work of adaptive change to the people who need to take responsibility for change.8 This way you're not caught pushing the group to change but leading them to assume responsibility.

Remember our earlier point: The leader's role in adaptive work is not to define and solve problems but to focus attention and ask questions so the working group can locate problems and find solutions.

Leading change is high risk. Jesus knew it. But He took it anyway. There's nothing like it when your group converges on tough problems and forges out a way for it all to come together. There's nothing like watching unknown solutions surface, seeing people change, and witnessing your group moving forward.

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1 Warren Bennis, "Truth or Consequences," Compass, Fall 2003, Vol. 1, No. 1, 11.

2 Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002), 13.

3 Ibid., 14.

4 Bennis, 11.

5 Jeanie Daniel Duck, The Change Monster: The Human Forces That Fuel or Foil Corporate Transformation and Change (New York: Crown Business, 2001), 92.

6 Tom Kelley and Jonathan Littman, The Art of Innovation: Lessons in Creativity from IDEO, America's Leading Design Firm (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 58.

7 Ibid., 57, 58.

8 Marty Linsky, "Leadership on the Line" seminar, Seattle, Wash., December 2004.



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