Management cannot solve strategic or operating problems without undertaking adaptive work, that for which no satisfactory response has yet been developed, no plan of action specified, no technical expertise shown to be fully adequate. These are problems that require new adaptations and the learning of new organizational roles. Adaptive work is challenging because it requires that we relinquish some of our deeply held beliefs and learn new skills where old ones are insufficient.
We believe that the prevailing notion that leadership consists of having a vision and aligning people with it is bankrupt because it continues to treat adaptive situations as if they were technical: The authority figure is supposed to divine “where we’re going.” Leadership is reduced to a combination of omniscience and salesmanship. But adaptive problems are often intractable and not amenable to solutions that company “leaders” issue from on high; instead, they require disseminated experimentation and disseminated responsibility.