Moving Up the Human Services Value Curve: The Adaptive Challenge
An Insight from the 2015 Human Services Summit
Share on

The demand for improved value and outcomes from human services organizations is erce, and leaders are under increasing pressure to deliver results better, faster, and cheaper. Even the most seasoned leaders face di culty in moving their human services organizations to new ways of creating and delivering services, and this challenge was on the minds of participants at the Human Services Summit.

“Human services are deeply embedded within an ecosystem of public, private, and social sector organizations, which means that innovation has to be aligned across multiple organizational boundaries,” explained Dr. Antonio O elie, Executive Director of Leadership for Networked World and Public Sector Innovation Fellow at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. “ e central challenge for leaders in human services is how to help people across an ecosystem adopt new business models, capabilities, and cultural attributes.”

To help with this challenge, Dr. Ron Heifetz, Founder of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, led a summit discussion on how exercising adaptive leadership can help organizations move up the Human Services Value Curve.

Heifetz emphasized that leaders must rst understand moving up the Human Services Value Curve as an organizational adaptation. As organizations reach each level of the curve, people within organizations will experience di erent forms of challenges or barriers to adaptation. First, there are “technical” challenges – situations where both the problem and solutions are clear, and can be resolved by authority. Second, it is common for a challenge to be both “technical” and “adaptive” – in which the problem is clear, but solutions require learning and stakeholders need to actively work on the issue. e most di cult challenges are purely “adaptive” – both the problem and solution require learning, and stakeholders have to be deeply engaged in creating solutions.

Heifetz explained: “An adaptive challenge requires experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization. Without learning new ways – changing attitudes, values, and behaviors – people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment. e sustainability of change depends on having the people with the problem internalize the change itself.”

So how can leaders govern the adaptive challenge?

An adaptive challenge cannot be resolved completely through authority or (change) management. Rather, it takes actively mobilizing stakeholders to address real and perceived loss of established ideals, values, and competencies while also actively learning new competencies, capabilities, and culture. As challenges become more purely adaptive, the locus of work needs deeper engagement by those a ected. is form of “exercising leadership” is needed to move people through the adaptive challenge.

Heifetz analogized movement to change in the natural world. In addition to production, “Nature has three basic tasks: what to conserve, what to discard, and what innovations (new ‘DNA’) will enable new capacity,” he said, noting that nature “evolves” slowly and often imperceptibly. “ is is important as a leadership metaphor because really significant change is highly conservative. Small changes in DNA can result in major leaps. People in authority talk with enthusiasm about innovations and change, yet neglect to emphasize and communicate to stakeholders all that will remain the same. We frighten people and they respond to the sense of loss rather than all that’s going to be preserved.”

A critical aspect of exercising leadership is to identify what “DNA” needs to be conserved, while at the same time identifying what must change. is necessitates working with people to create a vision for the future, while attaching this new vision to the organization’s historic mission and ideals. It also requires innovation and new ways of working and new competencies, while pacing the change in a way that enables people to deal with loss and make the gains their own.

Human services leaders will be stymied in their efforts if adaptive leadership is not exercised, said Oftelie and Heifetz.

“The central challenge for leaders in human services is how to diagnose and resolve adaptive challenges as they move an organization through adoption of new business models, capabilities and cultural attributes.”

Dr. Antonio M. Oftelie
Executive Director, Leadership for a Networked World

When a person or group isn’t mobilized to work through their adaptive challenge, they may work against the new vision and derail a transformational initiative. Common examples of maladaptive behavior include:

• Avoidance: People disengage from the initiative – consciously or unconsciously – as they avoid the pain, anxiety, or con ict that comes with actively working through the gains and losses.
• Direct Push-back: People will actively ght the changes and advocate for previous models and methods of work.
• Circumvention: People will work around leadership and lobby agency heads, legislators, or whoever will lend a sympathetic ear in order to delay, distract, or derail the initiative.
• Shadow Processes: People will secretly keep past processes and operating models (undermining e ciencies that come from new models) in order to retain a sense of control.

Heifetz offered recommendations for leaders to mobilize themselves and other individuals within their organizations:

Identify the Adaptive Challenges: Be in a position where you know what will happen next. If you assess and forecast where the adaptive challenges will arise you can start working with the people a ected and resolve the tensions and tradeo s related to their changing roles, capabilities, loyalties, and identity.
• Start with Micro-adaptations: Realize that people need time to work through adaptive challenges – and get to know their limits. Pilot programs and small-scale innovations can build capacity for subsequent larger-scale adaptations. Create a “holding environment” for groups to discuss all of the issues related to the change in a non-judgmental atmosphere.
• Understand and Assess the Psychology of “Gains and Losses”: Understand the perceived and real value gains and value losses to each category of stakeholder, i.e., data center managers will perceive the value vastly di erent than an authorizing body or a senior executive in the initiative. Remember that perceived losses a ect adoption as much as perceived gains.
• Protect Voices of Leadership: Find and protect the people who exercise leadership but don’t have the cover of formal authority. ese people are the “change-makers” within an organization and usually have a high capacity for mobilizing themselves and their peers. Funnel them timely information, engage them in helping to voice the necessity of change, and protect them during the process.
• Hold Steady: Last – and most important – protect yourself. Realize that you are a ected by the change and adaptation also. Work through your personal adaptation- and if you can, do some of that with others. Separate yourself from your role and understand that maladaptive people will attack your role and your authority – don’t take it personally.

There are many ways to describe the changes taking place in human services today: disruptive, revolutionary, transformational, radical. No matter how it’s described, people in human services organizations have to keep services owing for the most vulnerable customers, while creating a new vision, organization, and identity for the future. Exercising adaptive leadership will be the pivotal strategy for helping people during this journey, and for realizing the potential of new business models for outcomes, impact, and value.

“An adaptive challenge requires experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization. Without learning new ways – changing attitudes, values, and behaviors – people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment.”

Dr. Ronald Heifetz
Founder, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard Kennedy School


© 2024 Leadership for a Networked World. All Rights Reserved.