David Lose: Adaptive and Technical Change


After a few emails and comments, I realized that I could have been much clearer on the difference between transformation and tweaking things. One question in particular was most helpful and ran, in several forms, something like this: Isn't there a time for tweaking? Or, can tweaking things prepare for transformation. In short, the reply to the former is "absolutely," while the reply to the latter is "rarely."

Both answers hinge completely on the nature of your context. When the context is relatively stable, even though there may be significant changes and challenges at hand, the task is to figure out what has not been working in an otherwise sound enterprise and to fix (tweak) those things. When the context has substantially changed, however, tweaking isn't really possible because it's the fundamental nature of the organization that is in question. In fact, tweaking is ultimately dangerous because it squanders precious time and resources in an effort to make the old system work instead of recognizing that what is needed is an entirely new system.

In short, transformation - innovating in order to create something new - is needed when the context in which you live and work is simply no longer the same and that means that the old rules no longer apply. Otherwise - and most of the time this is the norm - tweaking things for optimal performance is just fine. So, are there times for tweaking? Absolutely. Does it prepare us for transformation? Rarely, as it reinforces the existing paradigm rather than call it into question.

The prevailing "industry" language around these concepts isn't transformation and tweaking, but rather adaptive and technical change, terms coined by Ron Heifetz in his outstanding book,Leadership Without Easy Answers . Whereas technical change requires us to do things differently, adaptive change requires us to think differently about what we're doing and so, as Heifetz writes, requires a change in values and beliefs as well as behaviors (p. 22).

I'm reminded, again, of that fantastic scene in Moneyball where Billy Beane is gathered with his scouts. The gap between the adaptive change (transformation) that Billy advocates and the technical change (tweaking) his scouts recommend comes to the surface when they can't even agree on the nature of the problem. They believe the problem is that they've got to get by on less money, compete with richer teams, and therefore find better recruits and develop them into excellent players. But according to Billy, the problem is that the advent of television has fundamentally changed baseball and so he champions not just doing things better but looking at the game entirely differently.

Kodak, Borders, and Blockbuster - to cite a few recent examples from the world of business - all opted for massive technical change. And all failed, while Pansonic, Barnes & Noble (not to mention Amazon), and Netflix all embraced (or developed) adaptive changes to enter into a whole new world of photography, books, and home entertainment. When it comes to the world of church and seminary, all too often we get caught up thinking that the problem is that we don't have enough members/students, or money, when really the problem is that the generation for whom our traditional way of doing and being church is only shrinking, while the generation for whom our way of doing and being church hasn't worked (or even connected) is only growing. Which means at this time and place, more of the same just isn't going to cut it.

If you're interesting in learning more, you can hear Ron Heifetz talk about the nature of adaptive change and the key role of leadership in such change in this nine-minute interview on Duke's Faith and Leadership site.


From David's blog, "...In the Meantime."