Technical problems have known solutions and can be handled with authoritative expertise. But there are no readily available solutions for adaptive challenges—those that require people to clarify their priorities and learn new ways of thinking and behaving. Adaptive leadership requires changing hearts and minds. —Ron Heifetz
The goal: Quality learning for every student every day.
The myth: There is one-right way to achieve that goal, and success requires replicating exactly what other schools have done.
In a recent column New York Times column Bob Herbert portrays Deborah Kenny’s work at Harlem Village Academies this way: “Ms. Kenny has created three phenomenally successful charter schools in Harlem and is in the process of creating more.” I was immediately struck by Herbert’s use of “created” and “creating” in just one sentence to describe Kenny’s leadership activity.
Creating schools with high levels of learning for all students is what Ron Heifetz calls an “adaptive challenge.” The challenge of continuous improvement requires that schools learn and invent their way to the achievement of their most important goals. They do so by studying research, investigating the best practices of others, and engaging in many results-oriented experiments.
Such an approach recognizes that continuous improvement is far more complex than simply copying what others have done. Instead, it cultivates research-informed decision-making and draws on professional judgment to improve practice and student learning.
In Leadership Without Easy Answers, Heifetz has some important things to say to school leaders about effective responses to adaptive challenges. “Unlike rote learning situations in which the answer is supplied, though paced, by the teacher, adaptive learning situations demand that people discover, invent, and take responsibility . . . .,” he writes. Leadership in such situations “consists of choreographing and directing learning processes in an organization or community. Progress often demands new ideas and innovation.”
In a JSD interview Heifetz told me, “Adaptive challenges require a different form of leadership because our current model looks to authorities to have the answers. But adaptive challenges require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments that arise from numerous places in the organization.” He added, “When facing an adaptive challenge one needs to create an environment in which multiple experiments are being run through invention and innovation and then sift through those experiments to see which ones are fruitful and exciting.
From this perspective, Leading for Results combines learning acquired from different sources: studying research and various forms of evidence to inform professional judgment, networking with other leaders and schools to stay at the leading edge of effective practice, and learning by taking action and reflecting on the effects of those actions related to the achievement of important goals. This process is continuously repeated. Forever.
Learning and inventing our way forward requires a tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity. It asks school communities to be clear about their preferred futures and to measure their continuous improvement efforts against clearly defined indicators of progress. And it requires the applications of common if not always correctly applied problem-solving tools such as the “five whys” and brainstorming, among other techniques.
Leading for Results “Six-Word Leadership Tool”:
Learn and invent your way forward.
Strengthen your leadership practice by . . .
• identifying an adaptive challenge faced by your school community and describing its features (who, what, when, where, why) as thoroughly as possible.
• determining a next step to take in clarifying and/or solving the problem (e.g., talk with the leadership team, draft a problem statement, identify relevant research or other professional literature for study, schedule a visit to a school farther along on its journey of improvement, brainstorm next steps).
• developing a “six-word leadership tool” to summarize your learning or to express an action you will take as a result of this essay. Please add your tool to the comment section of this blog and share it with one or more colleagues “back home.”