Leaving the dance floor & moving up in the balcony : Adaptive Leadership

The work of Heifetz. R and Linksy talk about adaptive leadership in their book on Leadership. They encourage leaders to get off the dance floor and get to the balcony periodically.

Let us understand adaptive leadership through analogy of dance floor.On a dance floor, when you are a part of the action it is difficult for leaders to see who isn’t dancing properly or who is moving hands or legs in wrong direction. By getting up in the balcony leaders get time to see the complete picture. 

“Getting up in the balcony” gives a different perspective of everything that is going on. You can’t see who is dancing well or struggling if you are on the dancing floor. Leadership is also busy dancing on the floor with everyone else and doesn’t have time to be fully reflective.When you get off the dance floor you spend less time dancing and more time looking down from the balcony at the dancers to assess whether there is better way to do things. On the Dance Floor, you are always in action for day to day running of business. On the “Balcony”, you can take a step back from the details and take a clearer, more strategic view of what is going on in your business. Spending regular time on the balcony is important for you to see what you need to do in order to grow or lead your business.

Case Study

Amit runs a training and consultancy firm and Rajan is the person in his office who writes training proposals poorly. What should he do?

If he correct his mistakes, he is responding to specific events; and this means Amit is dancing on the floor and if he won’t get onto the balcony Rajan will continue to make mistakes!

Amit gets on to the balcony: Is there a pattern to his mistakes? He makes mistakes when he is under pressure? Or he makes it on certain kinds of assignments? He makes more mistakes, when the training proposal is for an IT firm.Think about causes.

Maybe Rajan makes mistakes thinking Amit will correct his work no matter how hard he tries? Is Rajan simply a poor at content writing? Amit cannot make him a good content writer on the dance floor by correcting each paper he writes. Getting up on the balcony takes discipline.

The operational pressures pushes us back to the dance floor. And it takes time. It looks different up on the balcony; that’s why you need to go there.

Adaptive Challenges

We all deal with challenges in our professional or personal lives. These challenges can be technical or adaptive challenges.

A technical challenge is one that can be fixed with a single or momentary solution. Your laptop hanged, it is a technical challenge. Often you can just restart the laptop and the hair-pulling chaos is immediately relieved and quickly forgotten. Whereas an adaptive challenge takes time and often a cultural shift. Implementing a Learning Management Software is an example of adaptive challenge. It requires everyone involved to change their day to day activities, their strategies, and their preconceptions.

  • Adaptive challenges are changes in societies, markets, clients, competition and technology, which are forcing companies around the globe to clarify their values, develop new strategies and learn new ways of operating.
  • They cannot be met by the application of routine or technical approaches, it requires mobilising an organisation to change its behaviours.
  • With Adaptive challenges maintaining norms is difficult.Leaders have to challenge ‘the way of doing business’ and they should be able to distinguish values that must stay from values that must go.

Overcoming adaptive challenges require a thoughtful strategy, continuous support, and time to adapt (hence, adaptive challenges).

Adaptive leadership for adaptive challenges.

A prerequisite for adaptive management is “Getting on the Balcony”.

  • Business leaders have to be able to view patterns as if they were on a balcony, viewing the field of action.
  • They cannot afford to focus only on the action. They must see and set a context for change.
  • The dynamics of adaptive change are far too complex to keep track of, let alone influence, if leaders stay only on the field of play.

To avoid becoming unwitting prisoners of the system, leaders must have the capacity to be simultaneously in the action and on the balcony. They must reflect, day-to-day, moment-to-moment, on the many ways in which an organisation’s habits can sabotage work.

Activities of an adaptive leader

  • Silence is Silver –Taking out morning quiet hours , during which the leader is not interrupted except if there is an emergency.
  • Form a “core team” –All leaders and managers need some people who are honest to give feedback and courageous to share their perspective.. A small group of trust-worthy people with good judgment, knowledge and self-confidence.
  • Listen to your seniors–People at higher levels are responsible for seeing a larger picture than you manage.It will be beneficial for you to understand their perspective.
  • Whistle blowers –A leader can unofficially utilise few people to serve as his “eyes and ears,” as he put it. These people would tell him what different groups say. These people would sense the greatest hopes and deepest fears in the organisation..
  • Look for patterns and causes – When there is a challenge look for causes and patterns. This is the difference between watching a sales figures daily, and asking more fundamental questions about the company’s products, the loyalty of its customers, its ability to respond to a changing environment, etc.
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