Cast your mind back a few years and imagine you are the CEO or key leader in the following scenarios:
- You own and manage a small chain of video stores. You’ve effectively managed the transition from video cassettes to DVDs but have recently heard about this new technology called ‘streaming’. It seems a number of people are beginning to watch their favourite movies on-line. There’s this new potential competitor called Netflix. But surely it’s nothing to worry about – just a passing fad!?
- For the past 18 years you’ve been the pastor of a church currently of about 120 people in a comfortable, leafy, middle class suburb. However, you can remember back 12 years or so ago when there were many more members than that. Then it would have been quite usual to have between 250-300 in church on most Sundays. But especially over the last 10-12 years there have been some significant changes. Not only the decline in worship attendance, but most members are now in their retirement years, their kids have left home and moved away most now with families of their own. In addition, the wider community has become quite multicultural with large numbers from non-English speaking and non-Christian backgrounds.
- For several years you and your partner have run a not for profit crisis support agency for families experiencing domestic violence. Increasing government compliance and reporting requirements have escalated your operating costs. As a result you are uncertain about how much longer you can keep going. Will you have to lay off staff and how would that impact the services you currently offer?
In all these scenarios and thousands of others like them, we see the challenge of discontinuous change and the struggle of how to respond. Strategies that worked in the past are no longer successful. For the video store owner, offering two for one deals, ‘cheap Tuesdays’, spending more money on advertising no longer cut it. Yesterday’s clients are now streaming on Netflix, Binge, Amazon Prime or one of the myriad of competitors.
The pastor has attended workshops to upskill his/her preaching, introduced drums and guitars in worship services, doorknocked the local community to invite people to church but finds none of these makes any real difference. (In fact the drums caused quite an issue for several regular members!)
And the key leaders of the crisis support agency cannot afford to hire additional administrative staff to meet government requirements, nor, in good conscience, cut back on essential services given the increasing demand from the community for crisis accommodation.
The challenge facing all these leaders is how to adapt to their changed contexts. How to continue serving current ‘clients’ while at the same time connect with a new ‘market’ in order to sustain and develop their ‘business’? And that’s a huge challenge! One that requires maintaining and strengthening relational connections, honing technical and functional competencies while at the same time creatively engaging a changed context. It’s a challenge that most leaders have not been prepared or equipped for.
Ronald Heifetz, Harvard Professor and author of ‘Leadership without Easy Answers’ calls this the challenge of ‘adaptive change’. The work of adaptive change is for leaders and their organizations or communities to engage in a learning process to address conflicts within the organization’s values and/or the gap between those values, beliefs and strategies with the contextual reality in which the organization seeks to operate. To navigate that process leaders need to:
- Discern the adaptive challenge – Listen deeply to the ‘market’ in the changed context in view of the divergence between the organization’s basic beliefs, core values and missional strategy and that of the ‘market’. What issues and implications arise from the differences? What do we need to change or do differently?
- Keep stress levels to a tolerable level within the organization while engaging in the adaptive work. Pioneer new experiments, learn from what others in a similar position have done and explore potential partnerships. Recognise this will generate distress amongst some members of your organization so be sure to manage stress levels while engaging in new experiments. Emphasising what won’t change (i.e. the basic beliefs, core values and missional strategies that are essential to the organization’s identity) helps to minimize stress.
- Focus on those issues that are generating a widespread sense of urgency within the organization – People are more likely to take seriously ideas and possibilities if they strongly feel the issue is urgent and compelling.
- Involve people in the organization in dealing with the problem at a rate they can cope with – Make it clear this is not just a problem for leadership but for all internal stakeholders. But ensure they are supported and equipped to address it.
- Protect alternate voices – Support those who ask hard and stress generating questions or advocate alternate positions. All points of view need to be respected and listened to as they can stimulate creative thinking.
- Recognise there will be attempts at sabotage – Sabotage attempts will be inevitable, even from some who are friends and allies. So be prepared. For some, the stress of change can be so disturbing that they will do anything to try and maintain the status quo.
Adaptive work is a learning process that addresses loss and conflict arising from the gap between the organization’s and its members’ values and those of the changed missional context. It necessitates a change in either the organization’s beliefs, values or traditional practices; navigating the inevitable anxiety and conflict that will arise; while experimenting with new ways to deliver core mission in the changed reality. So what could all this mean for our three scenario leaders?
For the video store owner it will include considering why she/he is in the business of selling and hiring videos. Is it just to generate an income or is there some deeper purpose? If the former, will she/he sell off property and other assets, pay off any remaining mortgages and retire; start another business; or find another form of employment? If another film related business, what are some new initiatives that could be trialled to provide movies for the community and who could be potential partners?
For the church pastor, it will mean asking whether he/she has the energy and commitment to help the church reconnect with the wider community? What are those basic beliefs and core values shared by the pastor and key lay leaders that are non-negotiable and what needs to change in order to be able to reach those outside the church? What are some new missional experiments that could be piloted and who could help with that? And recognising this would impact the pastor’s availability to current members, how could people be supported and encouraged through the change process?
And for the leaders of the crisis support agency this scenario also raises critically important questions around values, beliefs and service delivery model. Should the agency pivot to reduce the number of survivors it can support in order to meet government requirements, change its service delivery strategy or seek other sources of support? Much will depend on the agency’s basic beliefs and core values. Whatever the leaders decide, how will they support clients and staff through any change process?
A Business Experiment
In the small Northern Rivers village of NSW where my wife grew up a new bookshop has recently opened. There was another bookshop there previously; the regular type that sold a small selection of fiction, general interest non-fiction and greeting cards. However, it closed a few years ago presumably due to lack of business. This new bookshop is quite different. It sells both new and second hand fiction and non-fiction and has a scattering of sofas and lounge chairs where potential buyers can relax as they browse through books they might wish to purchase while having a coffee (which the shop also has available).
The owners are attempting something new and a bit different – it’s early days yet and I wish them every success in their new venture.