Leadership as Learning

Many efforts to transform organizations through mergers and acquisitions, restructuring, reengineering and strategy work falter because managers fail to grasp the requirements of adaptive work. They make the classic error of treating adaptive challenges like technical problems that can be solved by tough minded senior executives.

The implications of that error go to the heart of the work of leaders in organizations today. Leaders crafting strategy have access to the technical expertise and the tools they need to calculate the benefits of a merger or restructuring, understand future trends and discontinuities, identify opportunities, map existing competencies, and identify the steering mechanisms to support their strategic direction. These tools and techniques are readily available both within organizations and from a variety of consulting firms, and they are very useful. In many cases, however, seemingly good strategies fail to be implemented. And often the failure is misdiagnosed. We had a good strategy, but we couldn’t execute it effectively.

In fact, the strategy itself is often deficient because too many perspectives were ignored during its formulation. The failure to do the necessary adaptive work during the strategy development process is a symptom of senior managers’ technical orientation. Managers frequently derive their solution to a problem and then try to sell it to some colleagues and bypass or sandbag others in the commitment building process. Too often, leaders, their team and consultants fail so identify and tackle the adaptive dimensions of the challenge and to ask themselves, who needs to learn what to develop, understand, commit to, and implement the strategy.

The same technical orientation entraps restructuring and business process reengineering initiatives, in which consultants and managers have the know how to do the technical work of framing the objectives, designing a new flow, documenting and communicating results, and identifying the activities to be by people in the organization. In many instances, reengineering falls short of the mark because it treats process redesign as a technical problem: managers neglect to identify the adaptive work and involve the people who have to do the changing. Senior executives fail to invest their time and their soul in understanding these issues and guiding people through the transition. Indeed, engineering is itself the wrong metaphor.

In short, the prevailing notion that leadership consists of having a vision and aligning people with that vision is bankrupt because it continues to treat adaptive situations as if they were technical: the authority figure is supposed to divine where the company is going, and people are supposed to follow. Leadership is reduced to a combination of grand knowing and salesmanship. Such a perspective reveals a basic misconception about the way businesses succeed in addressing adaptive challenges. Adaptive situation are hard to define and resolve precisely because they demand the work and responsibility of managers and people throughout the organization. They are not amendable to solutions provided by leaders, adaptive solutions require members of the organization to take responsibility for the problematic situations that them.

Leadership has to take place every day. It cannot be the responsibility of the few, a rare event, or a once in a life time opportunity. In our world, in our businesses, we face adaptive challenges all the time. When an executive is asked to square conflicting aspirations, he and his people face an adaptive challenge. When a manager sees a solution to a problem – technical in many respects except that it requires a change in the attitudes and habits of subordinates, she faces an adaptive challenge. When an employee close to the front line sees a gap between the organization’s purpose and the objectives he is asked to achieve, he faces both an adaptive challenge and the risks and opportunity of leading from below.

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