You’ve just finished addressing a problem, things are finally quieting down, and then it happens. One of your direct reports comes into your office to give you the bad news. There is a new problem and if we don’t resolve it now, it will have a huge impact. You know your boss won’t be at all happy so you spring into action. Quickly giving directions, you are caught up in the situation. In fact, it feels a bit exciting and you are adding lots of value to your team. What could be better?
Does this sound familiar? It does to me, and describes how I used to lead. It felt good at the time. As I look back, as much I as thought I was in control, the system was controlling me. Even worse, the system was playing me. The harder I worked the worse things became. Although I didn’t see it that way. I was working hard and doing good work, and it was exhausting.
Are you in control of the problem?
With what I know now, my perception of being in control was an illusion. I was playing the game of ‘Whack a Mole’. The faster and harder I worked, the next problem cropped up at the same pace. I wasn’t getting ahead, I was treading water, at best. Now I see playing the game wasn’t working. I needed to stop and play a different game. A game I could win. So what is that game?
It is time to change the game
This new game is what I called Adaptive Leadership. It builds on the premise that some situations can’t be controlled. They are too complex and unpredictable. They require a different approach. Working harder and doing more only increases the complexity and variability. Instead, here are several things I would do differently.
- Stop and reflect. Take time to observe what is going on. What is the impact of my actions? Are things getting better or worse? Ask others for their opinion, don’t rely solely on how you see the world.
- Assess. Based on your observations, create some assessments of what might be going on. These are like hypotheses that can be tested.
- Experiment. What simple experiment can be conducted to test the hypotheses and increase our understanding of what is going on? Think small, these should be quick and low cost. Don’t try to change many things at once, keep it simple. The goal is to learn what is and is not working as quickly as possible.
- Reflect. Closing the loop, reflect on what you learned from the experiment and move to assess your next experiment to increase your learning.
You may feel you don’t have time to do this. I hear you, but if you don’t break the cycle, you are playing the game of ‘Whack A Mole’. And how is that working for you?