Evaluation of adaptive versus technical challenges

Harvard leadership theorist Ronald Heifetz and his colleagues have advanced the idea that two kinds of challenges faced by organizations are technical and adaptive. A technical challenge is a problem that requires some kind of organizational tweak, the application of a well-known technique, or the like. A business might decide to implement a new machine on a production line, or a school might choose a textbook for sixth-grade English. It’s a technical problem requiring a technical solution that does not require a new way of doing business. (Here’s a video in which Heifetz discusses these two kinds of challenges.)

Adaptive challenges, however, require that people in the organization think and behave in new ways. A school might adopt a strategy in which teachers form professional learning communities, and work together to identify and implement their own approaches to helping their students. A business might determine that their employees need to create close partnerships with their customers in order to exploit the potential of emerging technologies. In other words, adaptive challenges require that organizations undergo fundamental change.

One reason that organizations are unsuccessful in addressing change is that they sometimes attempt to apply technical solutions to adaptive challenges. A school might adopt a new curriculum, or textbook, or testing system, when what is really needed is to support teachers to engage with their students in different ways. In such situations, a technical fix will not provide lasting, sustainable change.

This has implications for evaluators. A project that is designed to address an adaptive challenge should include an evaluation design that dives deeply into the organizational change processes necessary to the success of the effort. Measuring surface behaviors will be unlikely to provide the insights needed to understand how the organization, and the people within it, change and grow to address the challenge. Evaluating adaptive change initiatives is likely to require a systems-aware approach to evaluation design, and both qualitative and quantitative measures of internal processes, outcomes, and project impacts. Adaptive challenges often involve situations where solutions are not well-defined at the outset–so an appropriate evaluation strategy must be able to accommodate solutions that emerge from trial and error.

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