Practising adaptive leadership

5 min readJan 30, 2021

I’ve written before about what adaptive leadership is and using it to co-produce challenging conversations:

Adaptive leadership is the practice of mobilising people to tackle rough challenges and thrive. It’s about adapting to influences — methods, behaviours and beliefs — from other systems — cultures, fields & organisations. It anchors the ability to change and adapt to changing needs, practices & motivations of citizens, networks and even society within values of public service. It helps you improvise, learn and iterate, allow time for yourself and others to adapt and challenges you to move to the edges to test your capacity (or that of your organisation, neighbourhood or network) to adapt. It’s also about encouraging to challenge the expectations of people you look to for authority and subsequently manage the resistance they may display.

I went on Acumen’s Adaptive Leadership course. Acumen have some great courses and they’re free, so do check them out. Anyway, the course immerses you in the learning and then you have to pick a complex challenge which requires adaptive leadership and practise the learning out on that. As a side note, I love learning whether it’s to help people learn through change, adapt to the pandemic, or to shape the future

What’s the problem you face where there is a gap between your aspiration and the current reality?

How can I support people to uncover the needs, assets & motivations of those around them and help them develop solutions to them that could challenge the value or even need for services meeting a similar outcome?

  • How can I support staff to want to change the way they work to facilitate and support change with citizens, rather than providing or even commissioning a service for them?
  • How can I support citizens to want to change the way they get help, from receiving help from a service to working with that service and others to meet that need together?

What actions have you already taken to address this challenge?

Developed a programme which incentives citizens to get support to uncover needs, assets & motivations of their community and develop solutions with them.

What are the perspectives of other stakeholders involved in this issue?

Citizens don’t feel they have the time or money to fully dedicate themselves to developing those solutions. Staff don’t feel they need to engage with other groups meeting a similar need to them. Investors want to invest in solutions that can grow quickly.

What could they potentially gain or lose if progress is made?

Citizens could better meet their needs, influence how these are met and feel supported by others in the community. They could lose the certainty of support they’re currently getting. Staff could better enjoy working with citizens, but could lose their sense of worth and security of knowing what they can do.

Why is this challenge important to you?

Changing needs and services could make better use of the assets by citizens, staff and other stakeholders. It has worked elsewhere. I’m trying to make it happen now.

What benefits would it bring to you and/or your organisation or community if progress was made?

It would provide validation that the approach works to help people meet their needs & motivations. It would make my organisation more responsive, adaptive and trusted. It would make the community more supportive of each other, as well as resilient and creative.

How does adaptive leadership connect to the challenge you are trying to address in this course?

Helping people make the best use of their skills and collaborate with others in creative ways to feel like they are part of a community creating value.

How to diagnose the adaptive challenge

Make people in the organisation feel good about themselves and their enterprise, even if they are actually doing little beyond the bare minimum to live those values.

Because these decisions are so difficult, many leaders simply avoid making them, or they try to arrive at a compromise that ultimately serves no constituency’s needs well. As a result, the organization’s commitments continue to be in conflict.

Think of several commitments that are currently competing in your own organization. How are people in your organisation currently dealing with this situation? What are the consequences, positive and negative, of this way of coping?

How can we make savings while managing the increase in demand of need from our residents?

Commissioners are developing risk stratification, researchers are working with operational staff to identify activities that aren’t essential or don’t add value. People feel empowered when they’re involved in these projects as they can see how and why changes are made, but not those who aren’t involved, who feel they’re being left out and left behind.

Whenever members of an organization come together and have a conversation, there are actually two types of conversation going on. One is manifested in what people are saying publicly. Organisational system does not want you to say these things out loud; doing so will generate tension and conflict that will have to be addressed.

Think back to the last tough conversation you had in which you or someone else gave voice to the unspeakable. What enabled this to occur? For example, did someone else ask each person to give voice to a heartfelt but unpopular perspective?

Trust that people could share, that the person had the role of speaking the “unspeakable”

What happened as a result of the conversation?

Better understanding of the situation and a feeling that the issue had been discussed and there was more clarity because it had been discussed.

We find two common pathways in the patterns by which people resist the potential pain of adaptive change: diversion of attention and displacement of responsibility

What are the technical aspects of your challenge?

The methodology of the programme, the research insights, design principles, ideas and solutions, as well as the governance of the programme.

What are the stakeholders involved in your challenge? What are their values, loyalties and losses?

What was the key takeaway from mapping stakeholders and the system?

People you’re trying to convince often have a similar aversion to loss, in particular fearing the loss of control over what they knew and the potential loss of legitimacy the new process creates in not feeling needed or valued.




Head of Policy Design, Scrutiny & Partnerships @newhamlondon #localgov Co-founder of #systemschange & #servicedesign progs. inspired by @cescaalbanese