Six Principles for Leading Adaptive Work

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This article was compiled from a presentation given by Gil Rendle of the Alban Institute at the “Navigating Classis: Harnessing the Power of Change” Classis Renewal Conference, at Mt. Carmel Spiritual Centre, Niagara Falls, May 2004.

Renewing or changing a classis is not easy work. Classes, in their present form, have been hundreds of years in the making, how do a few people create change in this type of environment? It requires more than just a new structure or new perspective. It requires a new way of looking at change: adaptive change. Gil Rendle understands this type of change and gave some great insight at the conference in 2004 into defining this type of change and creating an environment where this type of change can happen.

Definition of Adaptive Work
Adaptive work is defined as leading change in a situation where both the problem and the solution are unclear and new learning is required by all the participants. Leaders are frequently asked to “fix” problems instead of providing learning about new paths that can be taken in a congregation’s or classis’ spiritual journey.

What can leaders do?
Leaders can “get on the balcony.” In order to have an understanding of the bigger picture, leaders need to be able to view situations and problems from a balcony perspective. Getting swept up in the field of action is often not productive. Taking a look from the balcony enables leaders to provide language for the situation that their group finds itself in and facilitate movement toward a solution.

In what ways could a classis meeting be a balcony experience for congregational leaders?

Identifying the type of challenge
Getting answers to the following questions can assist the leader in determining what path they need to take in moving their group forward:

  • Does the nature of the problem or situation represent a technical challenge or an adaptive challenge?
  • Would expert advice and technical adjustments within basic routines suffice, or would people throughout the organization have to learn new ways of doing business?

What is the worth our time and work as classis? What conversations do you want people to have at classis?

Regulate distress
People can learn only so much so fast. A leader must attend to three fundamental tasks:

  • Create an environment where people can spend time exploring the new learning
  • Provide a safe environment (direction, protection, orientation, managed conflict and the shaping of norms)
  • Demonstrate personal presence and poise (model the emotional capacity to tolerate uncertainty, frustration, and pain)

In what ways could a classis be a safe place for congregations in distress?

Maintaining disciplined attention
Diversity is valuable because innovation and learning are the products of differences. When sterile conflict takes the place of dialogue, a leader has to step in and put the team to work on reframing the issues, deepening the debate with questions, and unbundling the issues into their parts. This prevents the conflict from remaining polarized and superficial.

How could a classis promote the learning that comes from diversity of opinion through its discussions?

Giving the work back to the people
Getting people to assume greater responsibility is not easy. Letting people take the initiative in defining and solving problems means that management needs to learn to support rather than control.

How well does your classis give its work back to those who are most engaged in it?

Protect voices of leadership from below
Giving a voice to all people is the foundation of an organization that is willing to experiment and learn. But, in fact, original voices routinely get discouraged or silenced in organizational life. The voices from below are usually not as articulate as one would wish.

Does your classis encourage the voices from below to speak out? Why would this be a sign of a healthy classis?

Classis is not a problem to be solved but a structure to be used and developed. Innovative approaches to change are necessary in this type of environment. Adaptive work and leadership gives space for change to happen in a creative, healthy way. As many classes look for ways to change, using these principles of adaptive work can stretch the organizations in new and exciting ways.

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How to stop feeling trapped and frustrated, and instead see the situation as a fresh learning opportunity -- that's the strategic move I see opening up as I read these notes on Rendle.  I breathe a sigh of relief.  I don't have to see this situation (whatever it might happen to be) as something to endure, a contest to be fought; instead I can get on the balcony and see it as an opportunity to actually BE and PRACTICE being the Community of Christ - learning together, trying out something new, encouraging and supporting each other as we take risks.     Oh man is that ever idealistic!   And at the same time so biblical.  Maybe change is possible after all!   With minimal destruction.   OK, ready to get down from the balcony and engage again.  

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