How Can You Incorporate Adaptability Into Your Leadership?

Many of us think of leaders as people with titles, bestowed leadership. In my experience, we all have the possibility to exercise our leadership—and part of that is seeing that we have alternatives we can consider. So adaptable leadership means we need to generate options, which means we need to see the reality of our situation first. Once we see that reality and generate options, we can consider which step to take and then use that experience to decide again.

What prevents us from seeing our reality or generating options? Here’s what I see:

  • Our managers want more straightforward solutions. In code, that would be “If this, then that.” But more often, our reality is more complex than a simple if statement can cover.
  • We also want simpler, more direct solutions. Can we simplify our choices so we can fit these questions into if this, then that solutions?

So adaptable leadership requires that we clarify our reality and generate more options. Instead of linear thinking, we need ways of seeing and then managing our situations.

That’s quite the challenge! Let me start with questions to clarify our reality.

Questions to See Our Reality

Consider these kinds of questions to help everyone involved see the current reality:

  • Context-free questions about the work itself. These questions tend to clarify the meta reasons for the work, including the “why” behind the work. (See When do You Go Meta for these questions.)
  • Context-full questions to clarify the work or the problem facing us. Some examples might be:
    • What do we need to know about the circumstances where this problem occurs?
    • How do the customers (or downstream people) feel about this problem?
    • Do we have enough of the right people to solve this problem? (Or, do we have too many people to solve this problem?)
  • Questions about how we work: How will we choose to work? and other similar questions.

Those are the questions, but adaptable leaders might decide when to ask those questions and when to pause. That’s where you might exhibit leadership.

Lead the Discussion

We often think that leaders “do something,” as in we can watch them in action. Unfortunately, too often, we don’t think about leading in meetings. But those facilitated conversations might be even more evidence of leadership than any other form.

If we want to move from linear thinking, we need to make sure our conversations avoid linear thinking. I first learned about divergent and convergent decision-making in Facilitator’s Guide to Decision Making, by Sam Kaner et al. (I have an earlier paper version.)

  • Set the stage. If we use some of the questions above, we might discover new information.
  • The divergent zone where we all consider different possibilities. This is where we generate tons of ideas.
  • The groan zone where we all “just want to find the answer.” We look for the transforming idea(s) here.
  • The convergent zone where we decide. We decide here.
  • Closing, where we commit to our next actions.

Too often, we don’t consider leadership-by-facilitation. And it looks “quiet,” not what we often think of as leadership.

But, the more we facilitate other people’s ability to solve problems, the more we lead. Now, it’s probably past time for an example.

An Example of Adaptable Leadership

Lisa, a just-out-of-school engineer, tried to get her team to embrace trunk-based development.

(For those of you who don’t deliver software, here’s a quick explanation. Imagine you have five people, each working on their “own” features. They each create a “sandbox” where they develop and test their code. When they’re done, they somehow have to merge (integrate) their work back to the main product, the trunk. The larger the changes, the more trouble people have with merging back to the trunk. Too often, this kind of solo-oriented development creates chaos. Worse, the chaos creates resentment against some of the people on the team who wait a long time to merge their changes.

Instead, in trunk-based development, every person works on the main code base, always downloading previous changes and uploading their changes. That forces the changes to be small. The small changes make it easier to test. Trunk-based development is a cultural change, but benefits the team tremendously. Many fewer chaotic days and much less emotional angst.)

Lisa tried to facilitate a meeting about moving to trunk-based development. Even after an hour, she thought she had not succeeded in changing anyone’s mind. So she asked, “Any objections to me using trunk-based development?”

The rest of the team all shrugged, so she decided to do so.

After a week, one of her colleagues asked if she could teach him what she did to make her trunk-based development work so well. A few weeks later, another person did. And so on, until about three months later, the entire team used trunk-based development.

That’s leadership, but her initial, facilitated meeting failed. But did it?

Combine Leadership Types for Adaptability

Even though Lisa first tried to change the team’s minds in a meeting, she decided to stop using words. Staying within the team’s norms, she used actions. Slowly, over weeks and months, other people realized her success.

Lisa adapted her leadership. She started with stories and conversations and formal methods in the form of a workshop. Then, she checked to make sure no one objected to her experiment. Finally, she led by example, with informal approaches. She helped people see why she could succeed without drama and chaos.

That’s a form of adaptable leadership.

Consider Your Choices for Adaptable Leadership

Some of us (my hand is up and waving) have a difficult time stopping talking. That’s when I ask myself if my actions might be better. Or, I might consider a different form for all those words coming out of my mouth.

Some of us start with action. That’s great, as long as you don’t violate the team’s norms or working agreements.

And some of us use multiple approaches for talking, actions, and background influence. In my opinion, Lisa also used influence, because she showed her competence, built rapport, and earned the team’s trust.

The more choices we create for our leadership, the more we can avoid linear if-then thinking and solutions. We can see our reality and generate real and valuable options. Then, we can take an option and experiment with it. That allows us to decide what to do next.

That’s the question this week: How can you incorporate adaptability into your leadership?

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