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By Karen Shirer, PhD          

Understanding the nature of change

No matter what organization we work in, we deal with increasing complexity and on-going change.  In my own work, one of our largest Extension programs in Minnesota, SNAP Education, experienced a 30% budget cut during 2013.  We continue to deal with the effects of this unexpected change today.  How do we become more resilient in the face of these kinds of on-going change in our organizations?

A first step to building our resiliency involves understanding the kinds of change we deal with and how the kind of change determines how we respond.  Some changes seem to come out of nowhere, like the funding cut to SNAP Ed on January 1, 2013 that came as a result of federal legislative maneuvering. Other changes are more predictable or routine (e.g., people leave and create openings) but still require us to manage the response to it. Still other changes are a combination of routine and unpredicted changes.  For us, the loss of SNAP Ed funding was this latter kind of change.  We needed to first figure out how we were going to cover our costs for the last 9 months of the fiscal year while at the same time designing a new structure that the reduced resources could support (i.e., staff reductions).

What is your change?

On June 25, the Minnesota Family Learning Network, Lifestyle Transitions Team offered its first webinar, focusing on Building Resiliency during Change – Finding Courage Within. You can view this archived webinar at  During the webinar, military Family Service Providers identified a number of challenges that they faced in their organizations and their work with families, including:  A lack of staff to provide services and turnover of staff, reduced funding levels, too much paperwork and red tape, and challenges getting information out to families.  At the same time, service members and their families were seeking services for reintegration problems, financial challenges, the emotional wounds of the service member, feeling isolated, and difficulties seeking employment.

This feedback confirmed what I already believed:  military family services organizations face challenges on a number of fronts in their organization and with the families they serve.  The webinar provided valuable information on how to begin to address the personal stressors caused by these change. If you have not viewed it, please take some time to do so.  This blog adds to the webinar by providing you with information to help manage and lead change in your organization.

Types of change that will help us understand what is happening

A popular saying is “nobody likes change except a baby with a wet diaper.”  Even if we do not like change, our work requires that we address it in effective ways.  Heifetz, Linsky & Grashow (2009),  researchers at the Harvard Business School, developed a model that outlines three kinds of change or challenges/problems that leaders and managers face in their organizations and strategies for responding. These changes are labeled as:  technical, adaptive and a combination of technical and adaptive.

  • Technical problems are well defined and their solutions are known. Those with adequate expertise and organizational capacity can solve them.  For example, a father of young children seeks help with finding high quality childcare for his children so that he can continue working during his wife’s deployment. His care provider unexpectedly quit. The service provider consults available resources and connects the father with them. Solutions to technical problems are often straightforward.
  • Adaptive problems are much more complex and not well defined. The answers are not known in advance but require innovation and learning. For example, a service member and his/her family may come in for service for multiple issues – PTSD, housing insecurity, job seeking help – for which you have few existing resources to offer them. You have resources to deal with one of these issues alone but the combination is beyond your organization’s ability to manage. There may not be established models and resources for working with this complex set of issues, especially in an environment where there are reduced resources. You need to find new models, partnerships and approaches to meet this family’s needs.
  • Many times the challenges faced by family service providers involve a combination of technical and adaptive problems; sometimes described as complicated problems. These are still tough challenges but you can more readily define them more than adaptive challenges. But their solutions may not be clear and learning is required. Much of our work tends to fall in this arena. For example, the homeless family above may live in a community where there are complex array of services available but you may not be knowledgeable about them. Learning about them helps you point them in the right direction for addressing their issues. In addition, you learn in the process the importance of helping community resources understand the unique needs of military families.

How to apply to your work

These three kinds of change are often placed on a continuum with complicated problems wedged between routine and adaptive problems (see figure 1).  Heifetz, Linsky & Grashow (2009) go on to describe the kind of leadership needed to address complex problems or changes as adaptive leadership.  Basic to this model is the idea that a leader understands the nature of the problem or change – whether it is routine, complicated or adaptive – and applies the appropriate strategies for addressing the problem.  We do not want to apply a technical solution to an adaptive challenge (i.e., it is not strong enough to effect change) nor do we want to apply an adaptive solution to a technical problem (i.e., it is over kill and wastes valuable resources).

My experience is that the bulk of our work with organizational change lies in the middle of the continuum. At first, the situation seems overwhelming and very complex – adaptive.  But as we begin to learn more and work with others to address the situation, routine or technical problems emerge for which we can begin addressing. Oftentimes, though, we need to take adaptive approaches overall to effectively weather the changes.   These approaches involve thoughtfully defining the problem, changing our relationships and approaches to the work, including the people with the problem in the work of solving it, and experimenting with solutions (and permitting failure).

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Figure 1

If you are interested in learning more about adaptive challenges and adaptive leadership, please see the resources listed below:

Five Steps for Leading through Adaptive Change

Technical Problems vs. Adaptive Challenges

Perspectives on Change:  Ron Heifetz

To end the story I began with …

The budget cut for SNAP Ed I referenced at the beginning of this blog ended with the funding being reinstated in early 2014. Of course, this news was wholeheartedly welcomed but today we still are practicing adaptive leadership to invest the funds and deal with the negative fallout from staff layoffs. To address the budget cut, the program re-organized and down-sized its staff to meet the decreased resources. Now we are ramping up hiring of new staff to improve the quality and reach of the program.  This ramping up brings its own set of challenges and stressors. I’ve learned losing resources and gaining resources require adaptive leadership to address the challenges.  Take a few minutes to post your thoughts about your adaptive challenges and your experience addressing them.

Heifetz, R. A., Linsky, M., & Grashow, A. (2009). The practice of adaptive leadership: Tools and tactics for changing your organization and the world. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.