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In my leadership classes I often ask people what they think leadership is about. The answer is often something like, “Leadership is about solving problems and making good decisions.” If for so many people leadership is about problem solving and decision making, then it might be helpful for all of us to identify the kind of problems that calls for leadership and, more importantly, what kind of solutions – longer term solutions vs. quick fixes – leaders tend to use to address those problems. I believe this is the essence of adaptive leadership coaching.

Here are four examples of problems leaders might face:

  • #1: a co-worker is unable to do his share of work in a team project
  • #2: a software system has a different rate of adoption across different departments
  • #3: a CEO realizes that her company’s traditionally most-profitable product is rapidly losing market share to its main competitors
  • #4: a local non profit struggles in establishing its first fund-raising annual campaign.

Which of these problems require a quick fix and which a deeper change?

Quick Fixes Vs. Deep Change

Some problems cause disturbances that trigger certain responses. If we have the knowledge, the expertise and the cultural assumptions to deal with those problems, the action resolves the problem by providing the solution. In these situations distress is alleviated fairly quickly because it is within the know-how of the organization to solve.

  •  in #1: the boss can talk to the coworker
  • in #2: the department heads can be asked by the top person to use the system more
  • in #3: the CEO can quickly develop a new marketing campaign to counter-attack its competitors and address the losing market share
  • in #4: the local non-profit can let go the current fund-raising director and hire a new one.

All those actions can very well bring a solution in a relatively short period of time. And leaders are often under pressure to provide those fixes. They often do because responsiveness is understood as a measure of good leadership: the faster the fix, the more respected the leader. However consider what issue is left untouched in those good solutions:

  • in #1: how can every team ensure accountability in the process of working together on a project?
  • in #2: what are ways to develop a more customer-focused software development process?
  • in #3: how can we be more responsive to changing customer’s needs?
  • in #4: in what ways can we make the culture of this organization more results-oriented?

Many problems come bundled; they need quick fixes as well as longer terms solutions. Leaders’ overuse of quick fixes can be deleterious. Why? Because when a more complex problem comes – one that requires deeper work and one where the distress doesn’t go away quickly – a dependency on quick fixes makes people see their leaders as ineffective. They also see themselves as spectators rather than part of the solution.

Engaging in Complex Problem Solving for Deep Change

Whether they are called “adaptive challenges” or “wicked problems” or “swamps,” many problems people deal in organizations are complex, and often resistant to quick fixes.

When an issue – addressed before without success – explodes in a sudden crisis, causing a state of conflict, those are all indicators of problems that need a longer-term solution. These are issues that require for people to learn new ways. They require experimentation and patience because the organization currently does not have the know-how to fix it quickly.

Exercising leadership in these situations requires keeping people focused on the ongoing efforts, the ongoing behavioral and aptitudinal change. When a more complex problem comes, leaders must engage in a different conversation, one that requires people to take responsibility, to learn new ways, and to allow solutions to emerge from a collective undertaking.

In this work as leaders we need to keep people – often over a long period of time – in a “productive state of disequilibrium.” This is a place that allows for people to be engaged while solving the problem without shortcuts, but also without such a level of discomfort that they are not working productively together. Our job as leaders or as people in a position of authority is to frame the right questions for which answers are discovered over time by the collective intelligence of all the people involved.