Making Adaptive Change

It may never stop snowing and warm up this year!  I think, at the time when I am writing this, that Chicago has only had one day without precipitation in the last 40 days. At least for Noah it was only rain for that long—no shoveling!

Perhaps you have thought, when you see those lists of closed or delayed schools at the bottom of your tv screen or have seen your friends with children wondering on Facebook how they are going to fill another snow day. . . “At least I am not the one who has to decide whether or not school will be in session.” In cities, the decision can be based on whether or not teachers can get to school and children can navigate snowy sidewalks. In more rural areas, the decision is a life or death one. Some districts have hundreds of miles of bus routes and roads on which teenagers drive to get to school. When those roads are covered with snow and ice, it becomes unsafe.

I have a son-in-law who has to help make that decision for a district in Iowa. My daughter was telling me that another superintendent had shared this thought with those decision-makers: “I would rather go to school in June than to a funeral in February.” That certainly brings the decision into stark contrast. If upset parents and bored students would remember that this was part of the decision-making (even on those days when the forecast was more dire than the reality), it might help to ease their angst that another day will be added to the school calendar at some point.

In a book called “The Practice of Adaptive Leadership,” Heifetz, Grashow, and Linsky remind us that as leaders we need to help our organizations to make adaptive, not technical, changes to meet the challenges that face us. Technical changes are those for which an answer already exists and we just need to find it. We might fight long and hard about the right answer, but there is already an answer.

An adaptive change is one for which a completely new approach is needed. This often involves challenging the status quo, upsetting the way we have always done things, and questioning all of the details that have given an organization its form and function. When one is really being an adaptive leader, those in the organization may not be particularly happy with you or with the direction in which you are going. The authors remind us that part of the work of a leader is to increase the capacity for pain in others. We cannot make decisions or ask questions based on whether we can keep everyone happy. Instead, we sometimes need to make decisions that are right but do not gain us acclaim.

Everyone who is in leadership in a congregation can see that there are things that need to change. But we often make our decisions based on how the most volatile or least resilient members of our congregation will react. “Oh no, we cannot change the time of worship because Joe will have to miss getting to the diner on time.” “We cannot stop pouring money into that failing food pantry because Mary’s mother started it.” “We won’t sanction a Bible study in a brewery; my grandmother would roll over in her grave and I would stop contributing to this church.” Sometimes the session has to say, “We are sorry that you are upset. We are making this decision because we believe it is the right thing to do.”

The first time there is a snow day in a school year, everyone is happy—kids, teachers, administrators, bus drivers. It is like being given an extra day in your life. By the 10th snow day, no one is happy. Parents have used up all of the baby-sitting favors they can call in; vacation plans are going out the window as days are added to the calendar; teachers don’t even want to think about how they will get the kids back on track. But a wise leader keeps his or her focus on what is important: no funerals in February even if it means school until the Fourth of July.
Susan D. Krummel (Sue)
Executive Presbyter
Presbytery of Chicago