Higher Ed is Facing Adaptive Changes: Why This Conversation? Why Right Now?

illustration of an article

by Patrick Sanaghan and Jillian Lohndorf (The Sanaghan Group)

The Changes You Face Now Are Different From the Changes in the Past

We're well-equipped, in higher education, to meet technical change head-on. We're often less well-equipped for adaptive change. This is a distinction Ron Heifetz drew, first in his thought-provoking book Leadership without Easy Answers (1998) and later with Martin Linsky in Leadership on the Line (2002).

With technical challenges, situations arise where current knowledge, expertise and resources are enough to deal effectively. A technical problem is not necessarily trivial or simple but its solution lies within the organization's current repertoire of resources (such as updated technology, takeaways from past experience, or decisions to invest more money or people).

With adaptive challenges, there are fewer clear answers. Adaptive challenges cannot be solved with current knowledge and expertise, but require experimentation, risk taking, creativity and the ability to use "failures" as learning opportunities.

The problem is that we too often treat adaptive challenges as technical ones.

On top of this, many people tend to resist or deny adaptive challenges (e.g., Khan Academy, MOOCs, mobile technology in the classroom) because these challenges could dramatically change the way they think and act. Often, these people expect their leaders to come up with the solutions to the adaptive challenges because that's their job. Unfortunately, leaders will be unable to do this because they will need a collaborative and collective approach to solution finding that will authentically engage multiple stakeholders across their campuses. The challenge is: how do you actually do that?

We need to start by grounding ourselves in three critical suppositions, understand how adaptive change requires a different leadership skill set, and then have the critical conversation needed to shape that skill set and move our institutions forward.

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