Progress! A Journey through Adaptive Change

Posted by: Joycelyn Macbeth

"I began to think bigger, approach things differently, and commit to purposeful exploration beyond my doorstep. I had found my “new normal.” 

My partner and I were planning our first trip abroad when he enthusiastically recommended a backpacking trip in Central America. Something about ‘backpacking’ and mention of a volcano intimidated me. I had done a bit of travel myself, but more of the rolling suitcase variety. Needless to say, purchasing my now-beloved pack turned out to be one minor change that had a major effect. Not only did it make possible new adventures, but the decision to travel in this way – unencumbered, carrying my life on my shoulders - was transformative for me in unexpected ways. I began to think bigger, approach things differently, and commit to purposeful exploration beyond my doorstep. I had found my “new normal.”    

So what does this have to do with leading change? Or facing a challenge that requires everyone involved to think and approach their work in a different way? The common lesson is that small adjustments can jumpstart positive change. Through our journey of adaptive change here at the Foundation, the following practices have constituted ‘small adjustments’ that bring high value-add as we move - together - towards our “new normal.”

Defining purpose

Successful change requires those involved to define why they are engaged in the work from the start. This clarity of purpose helps the collective stay centered and saves energy for the important work ahead, rather than waste time on detours or interpersonal conflicts.

Identifying the driving force

What initiated the change, and for what reasons? Be it an individual, an event, or an organization, having clarity on the driving force of change can help everyone involved understand the boundaries in which they operate when approaching the challenge. This helps to create structure amid ambiguity.

Engaging veterans

Particularly for individuals new to an organization or role, one-on-one conversations with long-time staff can provide helpful perspective. It is important to listen with an open mind, be grateful to those willing to share, and identify the lessons that could prompt taking a different approach.

Open communication

Role clarity and decision-making authority are best defined at the beginning of a project. Feedback should be shared with appropriate staff to encourage collective action, learning, and growing. Leadership can be relied upon to help generate a culture in which open communication and difficult conversations are valued.

Participating in the process

For team members who sit outside the process or system being changed, taking on an affiliated task to better understand the user experience can provide valuable perspective.

Asking for alternatives

Adaptive challenges do not have one right answer, and solutions can take many forms. Requiring a suggested alternative when a proposed solution is rejected fosters a collective approach to problem-solving. Rejecting an idea is easy; coming up with a viable second option is not. This approach challenges team members to roll up their sleeves together, since facing an adaptive challenge should not be a solo endeavor.

Closing the feedback loop

A state of change is not a comfortable place to reside, largely due to uncertainty. If feedback has already been received from staff, follow-up communications that recap discussions and identify next steps can help reduce uncertainty and build a culture of transparency. 

Connecting directly

Further uncertainty can be generated when individuals know their work is affected but are unclear on what action to take. Before issuing a broad announcement about work going forward, consider who will be directly affected and may need more guidance. Reaching out to these individuals first can help them better manage their priorities and give them the opportunity to ask questions.

The power of paper

In the era of cloud computing and online technologies, paper can seem out-dated. Be that as it may, it’s also one of the easiest and most user-friendly ways to share information. For materials that need frequent reference, the utility of a printed copy should not be underestimated. It can be the difference between having information and actually using it to generate progress in the work.

All of these practices have helped our Foundation navigate the path to change. As we move forward, new challenges will continue to require us to remain open to different ways of thinking and doing. This process of adaptive transformation is a heavy lift for staff in any sector. For those of you taking it on, I hope these practices help you confidently lead change and support your organization as it finds its own “new normal.”