Adaptive Leadership–Continuous Change

This content is syndicated from Jim Highsmith by Jim Highsmith. To view the original post in full, click here.

All of us fall into clichéd phrases about the constancy and pervasiveness of change—yet our conceptual framework and management practices still view change as an exception. Most of our concepts, practices, and tools are geared to environments in which equilibrium is the normal condition and changes are the exception. Extreme, high-speed, high-change environments are just the opposite—change is the norm. In extreme environments, equilibrium is the exception condition. In such circumstances, change management is not an add-on procedure to a linear process temporarily in disequilibrium—change management is the heart of leadership. Adaptation is the process of continuous change in contrast to the periodic discrete change process found in many organizations. The difference between beginner and expert skiers provides an analogy. The beginner traverses the slope until he or she encounters the trees at the edge. For skiers, trees provide a significant incentive to change (turn). However, the expert skier is always changing, always turning, always on edge, always adapting to the challenge down the hill. The beginning skier is more like a traditional organization, utilizing existing practices until the threat (or actuality) of encountering trees is so great it has to change. Adaptive organizations, like advanced skiers, treat continuous change as the norm—and their practices reflect that actuality. The analogy has a further dimension. Watching a beginning skier is often painful; their arms are flailing, their skis cross intermittently, their bodies struggle for balance. The expert skier flows down the mountain, their arms barely moving for the next pole plant, their skis appearing fastened together, their bodies hardly moving. Some organizations lurch from change to change. They fight change even as they try to manage it, flailing away and expending tremendous energy, while other organizations seem to gracefully absorb the inevitable bumps along the way. Adaptive change is more graceful because it flows from all levels of an organization. Historically, however, change has been imposed in a top-down manner. From Newtonian determinism came Frederick Winslow Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management first published in 1916, which, in turn, spawned an almost slavish focus on process and workflow. Early science and early warfare lay the foundations for a command-and-control management philosophy: The manager knows the objective and commands the troops to conquer the objective. Once the command is given, the manager monitors progress and controls the outcome. This approach worked well as long as the objective to be conquered did not move around much, and as long as the organization existed in a more predictable world. Adaptation depends on Leadership and Collaboration rather than on Command and Control. The first focus of collaboration is on the work group and interpersonal relationships so as to create emergent order and thereby adapt locally. The second focus is on the cultural and structural aspects of collaboration necessary to create emergent order more globally—to scale adaptive development up to larger complex projects. The structure of an organization’s collaborative network has significant impact on its ability to produce emergent results and ultimately on its very ability to adapt. Adaptive Leadership focuses on creating the cultural environment in which adaptation and collaboration can thrive, and on creating a collaborative structure in which multiple groups can interact effectively.

Leave a Reply

What is 2 + 5 ?
Please leave these two fields as-is:
Please do this simple sum so I know you are human:)

There are 101 ways to approach anything.
To find the best way, sometimes you need expert help

What People Say

“Kelly revolutionised the way our digital department operated. A true advocate of agile principles, he quickly improved internal communication within our teams and our internal clients by aligning our business and creating a much enhanced sense of transparency in the decisions the business was making. Kelly also introduced a higher sense of empowerment to the development teams...”


“Kelly’s a leading program director with the ability to take charge from day one and keep strong momentum at both a program and project level driving prioritisation, resourcing and budgeting agendas. Kelly operates with an easy-going style and possesses a strong facilitation skill set. From my 5 months experience working with Kelly, I would recommend Kelly to program manage large scale, complex, cross company change programs both from a business and IT perspective.”


“Kelly is an extremely talented and visionary leader. As such he manages to inspire all around him to achieve their best. He is passionate about agile and has a wealth of experience to bring to bear in this area. If you're 'lucky' he might even tell you all about his agile blog. Above all this, Kelly is great fun to work with. He is always relaxed and never gets stressed - and trust me, he had plenty of opportunity here! If you get the chance to work with Kelly, don't pass it up.”


“Kelly is an Agile heavy-weight. He came in to assess my multi-million $ Agile development program which wasn’t delivering the right throughput. He interviewed most of the team and made some key recommendations that, when implemented, showed immediate results. I couldn’t ask for more than that except he’s a really nice guy as well.”


“Kelly and I worked together on a very large project trying to secure a new Insurer client. Kelly had fantastic commercial awareness as well as his technical expertise. Without him I would never had secured this client so I owe a lot to him. He is also a really great guy!”


“Kelly came to the department and has really made a huge impact on how the department communicates, collaborates and generally gets things done. We were already developing in an agile way, but Kelly has brought us even more into alignment with agile and scrum best practices, being eager to share information and willing to work with us to change our processes rather than dictate how things must be done. He is highly knowledgable about agile development (as his active blog proves) but his blog won't show what a friendly and knowledgeable guy he is. I highly recommend Kelly to anyone looking for a CTO or a seminar on agile/scrum practices - you won't be disappointed!”


“Kelly was a great colleague to work with - highly competent, trustworthy and generally a nice bloke.”


“Kelly was engaged as a Program Director on a complex business and technology transformation program for Suncorp Commercial Insurance. Kelly drew on his key capabilities and depth of experience to bring together disparate parties in a harmonised way, ensuring the initiate and concept phases of the program were understood and well formulated. Excellent outcome in a very short time frame. ”


“I worked with Kelly on many projects at IPC and I was always impressed with his approach to all of them, always ensuring the most commercially viable route was taken. He is great at managing relationships and it was always a pleasure working with him.”


“I worked with Kelly whilst at Thoughtworks and found him to be a most inspiring individual, his common-sense approach coupled with a deep understanding of Agile and business makes him an invaluable asset to any organisation. I can't recommend Kelly enough.”


“Kelly was a brilliant CTO and a great support to me in the time we worked together. I owe Kelly a great deal in terms of direction and how to get things done under sometimes difficult circumstances. Thanks Kelly.”