Identify the Adaptive Challenge

When a leopard threatens a band of chimpanzees, the leopard rarely succeeds in picking off a stray. Chimps know how to respond to this kind of threat. But when a man with an automatic rifle comes near, the routine responses fail. Chimps risk extinction in a world of poaches unless they figure out how to disarm the new threat. Similarly, when businesses cannot learn quickly to adapt to new challenges they are likely to face their own form of extinction.

Consider the well known case of British Airways. Having observed the revolutionary changes in the airline industry during the 1980s then chief executive Colin Marshall clearly recognized the need to transform an airline nicknamed Bloody Awful by its own passengers into an exemplar of customer service. He also understood that this ambition would require more than anything else changes in values, practices, and relationships throughout the company. An organization whose people clung to functional silos and valued pleasing their bosses more than pleasing customers could not become The World’s Favorite Airline. Marshall needed an organization dedicated to serving people acting on trust, respecting the individual and making teamwork happen across boundaries. Values had to change throughout British Airways. People had to learn to collaborate and to develop a collective sense of responsibility for the direction and performance of the airline. Marshall identified the essential adaptive challenge: creating trust throughout the organization. He is one of the first executives we have known to make creating trust a priority.

To lead British Airways, Marshall had to get his executive team to understand the nature of the threat created by unsatisfied customers. Did it represent a technical challenge or an adaptive challenge? Would expert advice and technical adjustments within basic routines suffice or would people throughout the company have to learn new ways of doing business, develop new competencies and begin to work collectively.

Marshall and his team set out to diagnose in more detail the organization’s challenges. They looked in there places. First they listened to the ideas and concerns of people inside and outside the organization meeting with crews on flights showing up in the 350 person reservation center in New York wandering around the baggage handling area in Tokyo, or visiting the passenger lounge in whatever airport they happened to be in. Their primary questions were, whose values, beliefs, attitudes or behaviors would have to change in order for progress to take place? What shifts in priorities, resources, and power were necessary? What sacrifices would have to be made and by whom?

Second Marshall and his team saw conflicts as clues symptoms of adaptive challenges. The way conflicts across functions were being expressed where mere surface phenomena: the underlying conflicts had to be diagnosed. Disputes over seemingly technical issues such as procedures, schedules, and liens of authority were in fact proxies for underlying conflicts about values and norms.

Third, Marshall and his team held a mirror up to themselves, recognizing that they embodied the adaptive challenges facing the organization. Early in the transformation of British Airways, competing values and norms were played out on the executive team in dysfunctional ways that impaired the capacity of the rest of the company to collaborate across functions and units and make the necessary trade offs. No executive can hide from the fact that his or her team reflects the best and the worst of the company’s values and norms, and therefore provides a case in point for insight into the nature of the adaptive work ahead.

Thus, identifying its adaptive challenge was crucial in British Airways’ bid to become The World’s Favorite Airline. For the strategy to succeed, the company’s leaders needed to understand themselves their people and the potential sources of conflict. Marshall recognized that strategy development itself requires adaptive work.