School change: Technical solutions vs. adaptive challenges

by Steve Wyckoff on August 24, 2010

In preparation for a presentation on school change that I was doing recently I was going back through my material and came across the work, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading by Marty Linsky and Ron Heifetz.

Their work is really good stuff, and if you haven’t read it I would highly recommend it. Their work has always been pertinent and right on target, but I think it is especially relevant at this point in time. The most important point for me is a quote that they used about technical solutions versus adaptive challenges.

Technical solutions are the things that we  already know how to do. We apply those solutions when there is disequilibrium  (their term) in the system. For those of us in education we would call those solutions best practice. Those are the things we have been working really hard on for the last 15 years. And we’re really good at them now. In fact were probably doing the best job of what we’ve always done, that we’ve ever done.

The problem arises when doing what you’ve always done, regardless of how well you’re doing it, either isn’t good enough, or isn’t the right thing to be doing. Linsky and Heifetz call them “adaptive challenges.” Adaptive challenges require that we learn new ways, not simply get better at the old ways.

I believe that we are absolutely facing adaptive challenges. That we are going to have to change what we have kids know and do, change the educational experiences where they learn them, and change how we organize for those learning experiences.  Their quote about the mistakes leaders make applies to us today in education.

“Indeed, the single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify … is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.” – Heifetz and Linskey

I think that we  our treating adaptive challenges like technical problems. That is why, in spite of all of our efforts and success, society still not satisfied with the education our students are receiving. Rural school change will mean figuring out those adaptive challenges in finding new ways to meet them. – Steve Wyckoff

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