Book Review—The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World

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August 2010

Book Review
The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World

CIDMIconNewsletterBill Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Comtech’s 2010 Best Practices Conference this year will be in Hampton, Virginia on September 13 through 15. The Theme of the Conference this year is the theory and practice of collaboration. The theme book, is The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and the World by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, and Marty Linsky. All three authors are part of the management consulting firm, Cambridge Leadership Associates.

Despite its name and the title of the 2010 Conference theme, this book is neither strictly about leadership nor collaboration. It’s about change management, but good change management requires both leadership and collaboration.

The key to this book is the word “adaptive.” The authors compare companies in the business world to species in the natural world. They relate the way companies behave in their business environments to Charles Darwin’s description of natural selection in the natural world. Companies correspond to species and employees to individual organisms. Just as species are comprised of individual organisms, companies are made up of management and employees. Just as species are successful if the reproductive rate equals or exceeds the death rate, companies are successful if they are breakeven or profitable.

Carrying on the analogy further, species that are adapted to the environment are constantly changing to adapt to changes in that environment. If a species is unable to change, it may suffer a decline in numbers and possibly become extinct. Similarly, companies that are profitable in the current business environment must constantly change to meet new environmental challenges such as competition, technology, cultural changes, and regulatory changes. Companies who fail to change may become unprofitable and possibly go out of business. A classic example is the typewriter company, Smith Corona.

The authors point out that the analogy between companies and species is far from perfect. I’m sure that Darwin would be turning over in his grave if he could read this book or my review. Nevertheless, it provides a useful framework to aid managers as they try to change their companies’ management and employee behaviors. The rest of the book is about managing change within a company to adapt to the challenges of environmental change. The authors have structured the book into five parts so that you can read just the areas in which you are most interested. Read part one so that you can get a good understanding of the sort of Darwinian adaptation found in all companies.

Part two deals with the need, as a manager promoting change, to understand the status quo situation in your company. Be sure to understand the gap between stated values and behavior. Think “Family Values” as a term thrown around by politicians which commonly does not mean what it says. Does upper management talk quality documentation while offshoring to writers with poor English language skills? Is there conflict between quality documentation and cutting costs? What issues are not openly discussed within the company? What are the political realities within companies and departments? Do individuals have priorities different than company priorities? Organizations can be socially very complex. Before you can begin promoting change, you must have a clear understanding of all the issues that may represent barriers to change as well as those that will aid you in accomplishing that change.

After you have researched and confirmed the underlying problems and all the consequences of your intended changes, you are ready to promote your intervention for change. Part three deals with promoting and executing your intervention.

First, understand other managers’ interpretations of the problem. Many pick the easiest interpretations. “The problem is due to bad management or maybe incompetent employees?” Be aware that most will interpret the problems in light of their own interests. They want to ensure that they are not responsible and will not suffer loss. Remember that it is likely that there are many interpretations of the same problem. Your intervention is likely to result in some conflict. The authors provide ways to mitigate the conflict. First understand who in the organization will be winners after the change, and who will be losers.

Make an effort to recruit allies and to be aware of the political realities of your company. Let the intervention have a life of its own. Don’t allow it to become “your” intervention. The authors suggest off-site meetings with people affected by the intervention to garner their support.

Parts four and five mirror parts two and three. As a member of the organization, unlike an outside consultant, you have your own biases, your own allies among your colleagues, and your own possibility of gain or loss. Before you can execute an intervention for change you must have as clear an understanding of yourself as of your organization. And remember, the changes that you initiate for your organization will affect you as well. Finally, before you promote an intervention you must be sure you can carry it through to the end and survive the ordeal! The authors provide survival advice in part five.

As with many of the management books that I’ve read, this is no mystery or romance novel. However, the authors provide lots of valuable insight. The authors suggest that you don’t have to read everything, just the stuff that is helpful to you. This book is certainly worth reading before you take on the difficult task of promoting an intervention. CIDMIconNewsletter

Bill Hackos

Comtech Services, Inc.

Dr. Hackos has worked with companies in the United States and Europe, helping them solve their publications management problems. He has been heavily involved in many benchmarking projects related to publications management. Dr. Hackos has also helped in the design of graphic user interfaces that are easy to learn and to use. With 30 years’ experience in the computer industry, Dr. Hackos understands how to increase the usability of products.


Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow, & Marty Linsky

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and the World

2009, Boston, MA

Harvard Business Press

ISBN: 9781422105764