In my introduction to this new blog, “Back to Where I Started,” I wrote about moving beyond “technical consulting.”

One idea that’s helped me formulate my new direction is learning the difference between “technical” and “adaptive” challenges. 

I came across the idea first in Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey. The authors cite Ronald Heifetz’s classic work, Leadership without Easy Answers.

No blog post can do justice to these two complex books1. But the key distinction between technical and adaptive change is key to how I see my work going forward.

I’d put the distinction this way. If you have a technical challenge, you can hire someone to fix the problem and you don’t have to change who you are or how you work. Examples abound. A surgeon can remove your appendix. A CPA can file your taxes. Or a data consultant can make your reports run faster.

Clear problems. Known solutions. Fixed pricing. No personal growth required. 

Adaptive challenges are much more complicated – because you can’t just throw money at the problem. 

An expert can provide advice and help you with the process, but fundamentally, you, the person, the organization or the community with the issue are going to need to change actions/behaviors and the thinking behind them.

Examples of adaptive challenges are also pretty common. A cardiologist or cardiac surgeon can help after a heart attack. But if you don’t improve your health habits, their expertise isn’t going to help. 

If your CPA calculates your taxes but you don’t have the money to pay them, you’re going to have to figure out how to stay on a budget.

If you get better reports, but no one in your organization tests them, or uses them, or acts based upon the data, whatever you paid to the consultant is wasted effort.

My background – and dealing with technical versus adaptive challenges

Most often in my career, I’ve been brought in to fix a technical challenge. Examples: The software is slow. Or the developer is way, way behind in getting the EDI work setup. Or, “we can’t close the books.”

In many cases, we fixed the problem or showed people exactly what they needed to do better technically and all was great. We were clearly the right hired guns.

Other times, however, what started as a technical challenge became very clearly an adaptive challenge. 

For example, one of my clients operated hundreds of franchised restaurants. The technical challenge that sparked my involvement was a series of register programming mistakes.

However, it quickly became clear they had an adaptive challenge. Very talented programmers had moved into management and hadn’t really changed how they operated. They were basically still senior programmers, diving in to fix problems when others couldn’t get the job done.  

Happily, the folks involved were quite intelligent and quite motivated – which allowed me to help them make the transition to their new roles. 

Another time, I had to coordinate a multi-national financial consolidation. The company was part of a roll-up of multiple entities in the US, UK and Sweden. Plenty of technical challenges existed between foreign currency and multiple accounting systems. 

The bigger challenge was how to get folks from very different cultures to work together. Indeed, the biggest cultural gap was between the two firms in London, but that’s another story.

Understanding your challenge from the beginning

As I go forward, I want to engage the adaptive challenges from the outset.  

In another post, I discuss the challenge a non-profit has with data. While I haven’t been engaged, I’m really happy that I was at least able to help my friend understand he had to address the adaptive challenge first – how the organization dealt with change – before diving into the technical details of how to deliver better data. 

I believe that before folks invest in technology, they need to understand how they as an organization or company work together – and begin to address adaptive challenges first.

In your own experience, are folks good at acknowledging that the technical problem isn’t the problem? If they acknowledge that they have an adaptive challenge, are they good at addressing it?


1Both books are great reads. If you have to read one, and you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of organizational and personal change, I’d start with Kegan/Lahey. Heifetz creates an important conceptual framework. However, most of his examples come from politics. While I’m a history major and still read quite a bit for pleasure, I found it hard to think about my clients in terms of Reagan and LBJ.

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