Munch Club #2: Ronald Heifetz and The Adaptive Challenge

In this month’s Munch Club led by colleagues Liz Dreyer and Jonas Cartano, we discussed the distinction between technical and adaptive challenges as described by Ronald Heifetz, Professor at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  To prepare, we read selections from Heifetz’ book Leadership Without Easy Answers and Kurt made a delicious meal.

What is the difference between technical and adaptive challenges?

Heifetz explains that technical challenges are generally solved by an improvement in current practices. On the other hand, adaptive challenges have no known procedures or outcomes and require a deeper questioning of fundamental assumptions and values.  Solving adaptive challenges requires significantly more effort, a tolerance for uncertainty, and the presence of divergent voices.

What is an example of an adaptive challenge?

As we tried to understand what exactly Heifetz means by adaptive challenge, we were all struck by a great example from outside the arts: Heifetz’s description of the founding and eventual demise of the original settlers of Easter Island.

A few of the 887 stone statues, or moais, for which Easter Island is famous.

Fifteen hundred years ago, a group of Polynesian settlers sailed to Easter Island and set out to replicate their previous society, which was deeply routed in hierarchal power structures, religious conviction, and plentiful trees and fish. Ignoring the fact that the farming and fishing conditions were far worse than what they were used to back home, they adhered to ancient ways: slash-and-burn agriculture and building statues to the gods to bring them good fortune.

Over the next thousand years they cornered themselves into an untenable situation. The palm trees that once provided their sustenance, shelter, and boats eventually became extinct and the surrounding waters no longer provided fish.  Soon people began to starve.  Since the Easter Islanders relied heavily on their relationship with the divine powers, their solution was to build increasingly elaborate stone statues and places of worship.  When the situation didn’t improve, hierarchies broke down, wars broke out between the clans, and the people resorted to human sacrifice and cannibalism. Few islanders remained when Dutch colonials arrived and those that did were sold into slavery.

In other words, they tried to use a technical solution (building structures of worship) to respond to an adaptive challenge (changing environmental conditions).

Heifetz says,

“If we define problems by the disparity between values and circumstances, then an adaptive challenge is a particular kind of problem where the gap cannot be closed by the application of current technical know-how or routine behavior.”

For the Easter Islanders, the old value was to use divine worship to solve the problem, but the circumstance demanded a new solution.

According to Heifetz, Easter Island’s demise suggests “that the ability to adapt requires the productive interaction of different values through which each member or faction in a society sees reality and its challenges.  It cannot prepare for what it does not see.”  In other words, the strict hierarchical power structure on Easter Island prevented a productive interaction of different values, which led to the Island’s destruction.

Our session made us think: have the dramatic changes in the operating environment for the arts in the last 10 years put us into an untenable situation that we’re not preparing for because we can’t see it?  Are we ending up just like Easter Islanders eating each other or can we rethink our deeply held assumptions about how our organizations and our sector function?

Applying our Learning

Using the Easter Island example, we tried to understand how the story applies to an organization and what we have seen in the organizations we work with through our programs.

In small groups, we practiced a few scenarios in which one person playing a (fake) organizational leader trying to figure out whether they were wrestling with an adaptive challenge or a technical challenge and another person played an EmcArts representative trying to coach them.

Through the exercise, the EmcArts representative used questioning to probe the organizational leader, trying to determine whether the challenge was adaptive or technical.  They asked questions like: What changes in your environment are pushing you to create change? What approaches have you already tried? Are they working? Is this challenge something that you could solve by improving your current practices or do you need to try something wholly new?  What are potential barriers? What team would you need working on this to develop a new approach in order to ensure the presence of divergent voices?

What we found the exercise and in our real life experience is that there is often an adaptive challenge lurking beneath what may look like a technical challenge.  It’s a matter of digging deep enough into organizational assumptions to discover what it is.

Organizations (and individuals) generally find it difficult to change until the pain of not changing becomes paramount. The idea of going through conflict and knocking things out of whack is scary, especially when it may affect an entire organization.  But it’s essential.

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said,

“It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”


Piama Habibullah is the former Online Producer + Communications Manager at EmcArts.