Key ideas: Adaptive versus technical change

This is one of a series of shorter interlinked articles expanding on more theoretical ideas about how we might go about ‘changing the world’. If you want an easier starting point – if the words below sound like irrelevant theoretical academic jargon – then start with the article ‘This isn’t going to be easy‘ instead and come back here later. These ideas are about things we need to remember if – in practical terms – we’re going to actually make a difference and not accidentally make things worse – but they take some getting used to.

In their book ‘Leadership on the Line’ ¹ Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky write about the difference between what they call ‘technical’ change/challenge, and what they call ‘adaptive’ change/challenge. Their words about the differences between these are wise.

Heifetz and Linsky consider ‘technical’ challenges – technical change – as being change which is susceptible to the application of simple expertise. They’re using the word to highlight situations where a problem is easy to define, and the answers are known. They are clear that technical change isn’t necessarily easy to implement – this may be very difficult – but with enough money, enough effort, enough time, success is relatively certain.

As a contrast Heifetz and Linsky talk about ‘adaptive’ challenges – adaptive change – as being change which

  • is more difficult to define clearly;
  • requires the giving up of beliefs and habits (and adoption of new ones);
  • involves loss, and risks to those involved;
  • requires experimentation and new ideas;
  • involves situations where those working on the problem are themselves part of the problem;
  • is inevitably countered or opposed at a systemic level.

Beyond these observations, Heifetz and Linsky go into considerable detail about how adaptive change is opposed and undermined.

However, beyond all of these things they make one even more important observation, which has become well known:

“The single most common source of leadership failure we’ve been able to identify – in politics, community life, business or the non-profit sector – is that people, especially those in positions of authority, treat adaptive challenges like technical problems”


¹ Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading | Ronald A Heifetz and Marty Linsky | Harvard Business School Press; 2002

External links:

  • A survival guide for leaders – an article by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky which focuses on change and organisational leadership, but which explains many of their key ideas clearly.

See also:

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