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Mercy Odongo Nov 26, 2020

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Think of a problem you have tried (and failed) to fix multiple times. What solution have you attempted to use? What story have you been telling to explain why the problem remains unfixed?

Challenges fall into two categories;

  1. Technical challenges

  2. Adaptive challenges

Technical challenges are challenges that can be addressed with facts, information, knowledge, use of authority and subject matter expertise. When faced with a problem, ask yourself these questions. Is the kind of work technical? Does the team understand the Problem? Do they know how to solve it? Who has the responsibility? Experts or authority figures? What are the key obstacles? time, money and resources?


In a manufacturing company, production is halted because the machine is down. The company will likely to respond to this problem by:

  1. Calling a mechanic.
  2. If you are a mechanic, you will purchase the replacement parts and repair it yourself
  3. Buying a new machine or
  4. Outsource production.

Either way, there is a known solution to continue production. This example illustrates an instance where an organization is faced with a technical problem. Managers, especially seasoned ones, excel at solving technical challenges.

Adaptive challenges require confronting the status quo to change behavior, practices and ways of working to which you and others have been deeply committed. They are fluid and change with circumstances. Solutions to this type of challenge usually require people to learn new ways of doing things, change their attitudes, values and norms and adopt an experimental mind-set.

Adaptive challenges are especially difficult to identify because:

  • a) Kind of work is adaptive.
  • b) Problem definition is unclear
  • c) Solution is unknown.
  • d) progress requires learning
  • e) Locus of responsibility are affected stakeholders as well as authorities
  • f) Type of work involve experiments and smart risks
  • g) Key obstacles are hearts, minds loyalty and deeply held values

Adaptive challenges are systemic- they do not belong to one group. For example, a machine breaks down once every couple of months, despite regular maintenance. The adaptive challenge here is the lack of ownership and care towards the machine because staff members see the machine as company’s property or rather, the company’s problem.

This machine example also illustrates when most leadership failure occurs, exercising leadership by treating adaptive challenges as technical challenges. Each time the machine breaks down, a technical solution is applied to get the machine up and running. However, the underlying issue could be lack of ownership that remains unresolved.

One of the quick ways to know of adaptive challenge is the fact that the problem persists even after a series of attempted technical fixes.

Now, identify a major challenge you face either being in school if you are student, or in the workplace. Which elements of the challenges are technical, and which are adaptive? Consider the relative degree of difficulty in trying to manage the technical versus the adaptive elements of the challenge.

Many people apply solutions that have worked in other situations in the past but fail to take sufficiently into account the complexity of the new problem situation and end up applying technical fixes.

The failure to take into account the complexity of the problem and treating it like any other analytical, expert task that can be separated from the cultural and political human dimensions of the situation, is a primary cause of low implementation rates

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Written by

Mercy Odongo