In HBR’s article, A Survival Guide for Leaders, the authors explore the differences between two types of change:
- Technical problems can be solved applying existing know-how and the organization’s current problem-solving processes. Executives like this kind of change because they can do what they have excelled at throughout their careers: solve other people’s problems.
- Adaptive problems resist these kinds of solutions because they require people throughout the organization to alter their ways; as the people themselves are the problem, the solution lies with them.
If your bike needs fixed, you go to a bike shop. Fixing a technical problem- that’s a mechanic’s job. But it your bike troubles stem from the fact you don’t check the tire pressure regularly, your brother borrows it and wrecks it, or you’re wife dings it with her car – well then, that’s behavioral change – adaptive change. Whatever the underlying problems, the mechanic can’t solve them – instead, changes in your family need to occur – buy your brother his own bike, park more carefully, etc.
The classic error: Companies treat adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems. For example, executives attempt to improve the bottom line by cutting costs across the board. Not only does this avoid the need to make tough choices about which areas should be trimmed, it also masks the fact that the company’s real challenge lies in redesigning its strategy.
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