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A Leader’s Guide to Change

The best approach to change is to go into it thinking that your objective is more to protect what people value most than to change what they already have.

Ronald Heifetz is the founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; co-founder of Cambridge Leadership Associates; and author of Leadership Without Easy AnswersLeadership on the Line, and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization. His courses at the Harvard Kennedy School are the subject of the book Leadership Can be Taught by Sharon Daloz Parks. Heifetz advises government, nonprofit, and business leaders worldwide in generating and sustaining adaptive change.

In teaching about how to effect change, you distinguish between technical and adaptive solutions. What’s the difference?

Technical problems have known solutions that can be implemented by current authoritative know-how and protocol. Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, can only be addressed by people shedding entrenched priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties.

For example, Ruth, 95, was living alone and still driving when her son Marty Linsky (co-author of Leadership on the Line) began noticing new scrapes on her car. What was the remedy? The technical change was to fix the scrapes by taking the car to experts at the body shop. But below the surface was an adaptive challenge. Ruth was the only one of her contemporaries was who still driving, and doing so was a source of enormous pride and convenience for her, enabling her to function as an independent person. For her to stop driving required a momentous adaptation. The technical part was easier—having to pay for cabs, asking other people to drive her places, and so forth. The adaptive part was coming to terms with the loss of an important part of the story Ruth would tell herself about who she was as an autonomous human being. The underlying adaptive challenge was for her to refashion her identity and find ways to thrive within new constraints.

How do technical and adaptive solutions play out in a synagogue setting?

Similarly, in synagogues many challenges can be addressed through technical problem-solving, such as raising funds for a new building, hiring an architect to design it, cleaning up financial operations. All of these remedies are within the repertoire of the organization’s known capacities. Sometimes we don’t fix the technical challenges well, but people who can help us figure out how to do so are usually within arms’ reach.

Challenges facing synagogues for which there are no expert solutions to pull off any shelf, such as how to bring alienated Jews into the Reform community and make congregational life more meaningful to people, require adaptive work.

A strength of Reform Judaism has always been its devotion to being a living, adaptive organism—but, over time, even adaptive organisms develop their own culture and traditions. The adaptive work here is the very difficult task of figuring out what to conserve from the tradition that is precious and essential, what to discard, and what innovations will facilitate taking the very best of your history into the future. The process of deliberation can be emotionally charged and laden with conflict, because different people will have different views on what’s precious and what’s expendable. For example, in order to connect with the next generation, do we change the liturgy, or take out pews, or incorporate aspects of an outside spiritual practice?

What happens when synagogue leaders treat adaptive problems as if they were technical ones?

This common mistake in organizational leadership is especially problematic in the Jewish community, as we Jews place a premium on analytical thinking and take enormous pride in our ability to devise brilliant solutions. Too often, Jewish leaders talk more than they listen, but the diagnostic process for adaptive problems requires a lot of broad listening to identify what’s essential to people, what’s negotiable, and what may be expendable. Leaders need to ask a lot of questions in order to discern the song beneath an individual’s words—to hear the implied values, loyalties, traditions, and networks of relationship. Why is a particular melody so precious and meaningful to this person? What memories are associated with it? What are the kinds of losses at stake—everything from jobs and status to independence and relationships? Adaptive change requires a modification of the stories stakeholders have been telling themselves and the rest of the world about what they believe in, stand for, and represent. You have to listen carefully, because if you’re going to challenge each person to change, you have to articulate in a respectful and compassionate way what it is you’re asking this person to give up.

Isn’t it axiomatic that people resist change?

Actually, it’s a mistaken notion that people automatically resist change. People love change when they perceive it as a good thing. No one gives back a winning lottery ticket. What people resist is not change per se, but, as in the case of Ruth, potential or real loss. Therefore, the reason for much adaptive failure is resistance to loss. And the key to leadership is to assess the losses at stake, and then to manage and provide the contexts that move people through those losses to a new place.

The social work principle “You have to start where people are” is a critical component of this work. Don’t start with what you want to do; start with where people are. Leadership is not a sales job—it’s identification of the vision that’s already present, latent in the values of the community. You then distill its essence, determine what needs to be conserved, and call upon people to suffer some pain of loss and the discomfort of innovation on behalf of that precious something everyone wants to preserve.

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a great paradigm. What made King a powerful leader was his articulating not his own vision, but the vision already present in the American dream. When he spoke of his dream, the very next phrase was, “A dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” He spoke to the American dream of equality and respect for human dignity and freedom of opportunity—values already in the hearts and minds of most Americans—and he challenged people to face up to the internal contradiction between the values they said they stood for and the ways they were actually living.

In Jewish life, we can build upon the precious, essential parts of our tradition that anchor us and provide us with spiritual sustenance in the same way that the American dream of freedom and equal opportunity continues to inspire most of us, even as that dream remains an unrealized aspiration.

What other mistakes should leaders try to avoid as they oversee change?

Many change initiatives are driven into the ground because of a faulty understanding that “the organization needs to change because it’s broken.” An organization may be struggling to survive, and from an outsider’s perspective it may seem self-destructive, so in those senses you might say it’s broken, but the current way it’s operating has an internal logic. Any social organization—including a family—is the way it is because the people in that system, or at least those with the most leverage, want it that way. They prefer the current situation to trying out something new, where the consequences are unpredictable and likely to involve losses.

Leadership would be an easy enterprise if it were all about gains, but it rarely is. It’s not a positive sum game; it involves real losses. The best approach is to go into it thinking that your objective is more to protect what people value most than to change what they already have. Work to reawaken in people the values you’re going to conserve. Change is much more palatable when people realize it is being done to preserve what they love.

What can leaders expect in terms of the pace of change?

Adaptation takes time. From a biological vantage point, most adaptations that have greatly enhanced a species’ capacity to thrive unfolded over thousands, even millions, of years. Organizational and political adaptations are lighting fast by comparison, but they also take time to consolidate into new sets of norms and processes. Significant change is the product of incremental institutional experiments built up over stages. That timeframe will differ depending on the urgency of the challenge: whether you’re taking on an issue that’s ripe, by which I mean it’s already generating anxiety within the community, or unripe, meaning one segment of the community cares a lot about it but it isn’t on the radar screen of others.

You teach that evolutionary biology sheds some light onthe properties of successful adaptation. How so?

In both biological and social systems, the same three conditions are necessary:

  • Conserving the DNA essential for the species’ continued survival
  • “Discarding” the DNA that no longer serves the species’ current needs
  • Creating DNA arrangements that give the species innovative abilities to flourish in challenging environments and take the best of their history forward.

In biological adaptations, the actual amount of DNA that changes to radically expand the species’ capacity to thrive is miniscule. More than 98% of our current DNA is the same as that of a chimpanzee: it took less than a 2% change of our evolutionary predecessors’ genetic blueprint to give humans extraordinary range and ability.

From a leadership perspective, adaptation is as much, if not more, a process of conservation as one of loss. Successful change builds upon the past. The challenge is to distinguish what is essential from what is expendable in the organization’s heritage, making the best possible use of previous wisdom and know-how.

How do good adaptive leaders navigate the diverse and conflicting viewpoints they are going to encounter when discussing what is expendable?

There’s an old Jewish story: Two people are having an argument over a Torah interpretation and go to the rabbi to decide who is right. The rabbi listens carefully and declares, “You are both right.” A bystander interjects, “How can they both be right?” and the rabbi says, “Well, you’re right too.”

Good adaptive leaders say to the group, “Listen, there’s wisdom in all of your points of view, but all of your points of view cannot prevail in their current form, so something’s got to give. Progress is going to require compromise. Each person may be right, but sometimes only 80% right. We’ve got to take advantage of the wisdom of each of our points of view.” As you go around the table, people begin to realize, “Wow, we’re all right, but we’re not all 100% right. Now let’s figure out what’s really essential and what is negotiable in each of our points of view, so we can hold together as a community.”

You follow this by trying out different solutions. Sol the skeptic is going to say it’s not going to work, which 
is fine because we don’t know if what we’re doing will succeed anyway.

So let Sol keep us honest, and in six months from now we’ll evaluate if the innovation has merit and if not, how it might be revised in version 2.1 or 2.2. Leadership then becomes an evolving process of managing adaptation in which, to use a metaphor from the technology industry, you’re always debugging the system; you’re always coming up with the next upgrade.

This brings us to another leadership error: not having an experimental mindset. The most effective way to institute adaptive change is to actively commit to an intervention you’ve designed while also not letting yourself become wedded to it—so if it misses the mark, you don’t feel compelled to defend it. F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” You have to believe that your invention is absolutely the right thing to do at the moment you commit to it—while simultaneously remaining open to the possibility  that you are dead wrong. An adaptive mindset opens you up to that great unanticipated possibility.