We may as well start by explaining what adaptive challenge is so we don’t glaze over due to yet another buzzword in the leadership space.

Adaptive challenge sits outside the norms of critical thinking as the rules are often blurry and the path forward unknown. 

Beyond a simple strategic process, adaptive challenge is a critical tool in current leadership as we adapt models beyond the master of all principle. We move into collaborative problem solving, where the uncertainty of outcome is evident.

You may challenge that much of the leadership journey is, in fact, uncertain, but not all leaders have the capability to embrace the uncertainty. But what we see in adaptive challenge are a series of instances that we may not have encountered:

    1. Difficult to identify, easy to deny
    2. Requires changes to values and beliefs, i.e. your identity in the way you work
    3. Many changes required across the circumstance, many unknown
    4. Self-diagnosis and self-solving
    5. No shortcut to a solution, ongoing testing and review with a high failure rate

This principle outlines the differences between management and leadership in that a manager manages a process, and a leader inspires and leads a vision. Adaptive challenge talks to the ability of a leader to think beyond the technical reality of the situation. You could say that context and emotional intelligence are at play here.

For example, an employee may be struggling with their workload; the default response is that they are not capable or overworked. Yet, the adaptive challenge would explore other areas of thinking that might present an answer.

They may have challenges at home that consume their thinking and emotions. Therefore, focusing on the volume of work by reducing it or putting in new systems to streamline their workflow is not addressing the root cause of the problem.

As a leader, you need to develop the skills and critical thinking that sit beyond the perceived challenge and explores the unknown through critical inquiry. The ability to explore concepts and circumstances that may not be linear or even illogical will create a path to understanding.

In this example, the challenges in their personal lives are not challenges that you can necessarily provide an answer for or even give guidance. Giving them time off may create further stress in that environment; ignoring it makes a gap between you are your employee, and they may feel that you don’t care. So, you see, no clear solution because it’s not your relationship.

Some of the approaches may provide an open door for times when they are in a challenged state and develop their working environment to be productive and build self-worth with no further pressure. You may source and support services that can provide external support over a prolonged period, all of which offer a long term, potentially failure riddled journey that is not time-bound and likeliness of success unknown and out of your control.

The same can be applied when exploring the opportunity. There may be many ways of exploiting the possibilities. Still, it is unclear which will guide you towards success and trying different strategies with multiple failures may be the only way to understand where to put your time and energy to get a positive outcome.

In simplified terms, adaptive challenge pulls on the intangible and often emotionally led skills that can be taught but often come from the experience of challenge in both success and failure.

It takes courage to step into a new arena with little hope of advancement or success, but to do it anyway. If you follow the teachings of Brené Brown, she talks about daring to lead and courage being critical tools in the armoury of modern leadership.

Courage comes from facing what seem to be insurmountable challenges and would be easier to back down from, but as they say, much success lives on the other side of failure.

This is not promoting the idea of increasing your risk profile but a state of mind and thinking that allows you to step into the problem without the answers and tools and being comfortable to stay present in the challenge no matter the unknowns.

When we break it down, we are looking for a few critical traits from leaders when it comes to adaptive challenge:

A growth mindset allows you to flow into thinking places not previously experienced with energy and excitement for the learning ahead.

Resilience enables you to move forward with the learnings of the failure and turn them into a new solution.

Emotional intelligence will enable you to contextualise the information you and the missing information, including your flaws and bias.

All essential tools when developing a leadership journey, but with the additional understanding that there will be circumstances when you don’t have the answers, the solutions won’t immediately present themselves.

The courage to embrace thinking and actions that will change circumstances, relationships and emotions will provide a leadership platform that cannot be process or book learning, but being present in adaptive challenge.

It may feel like it is yet more that you as a leader have to take on. Well, not in this case. This where your ability to curate your team and their ideas are essential. As a leader, you may have a big vision and a focus on that, but the ability to solve every problem or maximise every opportunity is not realistic.

Suppose you can work as a team when it comes to adaptive challenge to have the ability to draw on several points of view and experiences that will bring diversity to the thinking and the potential solutions.

Adaptative challenge summarises that we leaders cannot rest on our laurels, neither can we be the ones with all the answers, especially when we stay in our technical mindset. However, divergent thinking driven by a growth mindset of you and your people while exploring your ability to fail fast will consistently deliver results if they are, in fact, only steps towards the solution and not the solution itself.

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