From the Blog

Technical Problem or Adaptive Challenge?

by Ted Hall 

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I was first introduced to the distinction between technical problems and adaptive challenges in 2008 when a colleague shared Leadership on the Line, a book by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky. I find this framework incredibly helpful when thinking about school improvement efforts.  

Here is how I think about the distinction between technical and adaptive work in schools:

 What Is the Work?Who Does the Work?
TechnicalApplying current knowledge to come up with a modified solution
Superintendents, principals, and/or others with authority
AdaptiveLearning new ways to look at challenges

The people who are faced with the challenge

The Technical “Problem”

It is amazing how often we try to implement change in schools by looking at the change as a technical problem instead of adaptive challenge. This can hamper school improvement efforts. For example:

A well-meaning principal reads a book about standards-based grading that inspires him to attend a workshop by the author. While he is at the workshop, the principal comes up with a plan to implement standards-based grading in his school the next year. He subsequently engages the technology specialist to change the software in the school management system from traditional grading to a 1-4 scale. In the opening days before school opens, the teachers are trained how to use the updated software. Predictably, the teachers don’t feel prepared and the students (as well as their parents) are concerned; as a result, the school board gets involved, which slows down or even halts the initiative.  

What went wrong here? The principal viewed standards-based grading as a technical problem instead of an adaptive challenge. He applied current knowledge by adjusting the grading software without helping other stakeholders, such as teachers, understand why the change was being made. In addition, students and parents had no explanation of the benefits of the change or have an opportunity to make their voices heard. 

Through the Lens of the Adaptive Challenge

How might this principal approach the same issue—switching from a traditional grading system to a 1-4 scale—through an adaptive challenge lens? The process could easily start the same way: The principal reads a book about standards-based grading. However, instead of attending the workshop himself, the principal includes a cross section of teacher leaders. Understanding that this is adaptive work, the principal thereafter creates a process for moving forward. That process would likely involve asking open-ended questions such as, “How can we improve our grading practices?” By engaging all the relevant stakeholders—teachers, school counselors, students, and parents—the principal can be confident that the work will move forward and the implementation plan will address all the issues or questions raised in the planning stages. In the school where I was principal, this multiple-stakeholder process resulted in a set of agreed upon grading guidelines that proved to be a critical first step in changing the culture of grading in the school, resulting in fairer and more consistent grading practices across the school that were adopted by all teachers.

Adaptive or Technical? That Is the Question!

Certainly there are technical problems that can and should be addressed with a technical solution, but many school-based challenges require more than that. When school leaders keep the technical/adaptive framework in mind, they won’t fall into the trap of creating a technical solution for what, upon reflection, is clearly an adaptive challenge. Bringing this framework to all of the stakeholders in the school can be a helpful tool for effective and lasting change.