Leadership and Mentoring

Recognizing Technical Problems vs. Adaptive Challenges (Heifetz & Linsky)

It is often quoted that “The single biggest failure of leadership is to treat adaptive challenges like technical problems.” This follows in research administration as well. As problems arise, and change management becomes part of your daily life, you begin to recognize the difference between solving an easy technical glitch and strategizing to effect organizational adaptive change.

Technical Problems

A technical problem is easy to identify and you often always immediately know how to solve them. It’s a quick and easy, cut-and-dried, solution. They can usually be solved by a leader or content-expert. Some may require a change in just one local place, while other may extend to the furthest organizational boundaries. People are generally receptive to technological problems because they recognize the need and solutions can be implemented easily.

Adaptive Challenges

Adaptive challenges are more difficult to identify. They often require a change in values, beliefs, roles, relationships, and approaches to work. In adaptive challenges, people who have the problem often do the work of solving it. These challenges often ripple throughout the organization in numerous places, crossing over organizational boundaries. People often resist changes associated with adaptive challenges because solutions sometimes require a long-time to implement and cannot be implemented by a direct or clear edict.


There is one thing that is common to both technical problems and adaptive challenges – engaging your stakeholders! In the end, the people who are using the system or who are affected by the change are your biggest responsibility. No matter what kind of problem you have, surround yourself with smart people who are living the issues on a day to day issue. Engage your active listening skills. Find smart solutions.


Adapted from Ronald A. Heifetz & Donald L. Laurie, “The Work of Leadership,” Harvard Business Review, January-February 1997; and Ronald A. Heifetz & Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line, Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

Article publié pour la première fois le 20/11/2018

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