The three-headed hydra of apathy, envy and fear believes that change can mean loss of power.

What’s the difference between a technical challenge and an adaptive challenge? (Hint: The adaptive challenge has three heads)


This twenty-part series introduces you to twenty key terms used in a local mobilizing process that you and your community will require to survive and thrive during colliding crises. The articles will reference the three-headed hydras of apathy, envy and fear, those people in positions of power who are fighting to keep a broken status quo.

Concept 10: adaptive leadership

This era of pandemics and economic disruptions brings out the best and worst in people. If you told someone that you were working on a county initiative to ensure that all residents had access to ten vital services for surviving and thriving, expect two types of reactions.

Person A: “Tell me more.” Person B: “That’s crazy talk.”

Defining adaptive leadership

For the Person B-types of the world, we have a process guiding our initiative, and all projects within, called Adaptive Leadership. This is a way of thinking about identifying and solving complex and political challenges. In a nutshell, it asks all of us to look at community or organizational problems as either technical challenges or adaptive challenges. Technical ones have an agreed upon path to follow for problem-solving while adaptive ones have no agreed upon path forward and you’re in uncharted waters. Trust us, you don’t want to confuse a technical challenge with an adaptive one. Most of the challenges encountered as an initiative and with project development will be adaptive challenges.

Loss vs Change

Loss versus change is a concept that is fundamental to our work with 100% Community, but you really, really need to read yet another book to fully understand why. To understand why, let’s talk about Dennis, who did not read Adaptive Leadership and suffered a huge professional defeat.

Meet Dennis: Change Agent

Picture young, bright and energetic Dennis, who is an avid bike enthusiast. He works for a local government, and he’s been given the go-ahead and budget to implement a dream project: implementing bike paths throughout the city. He’s done his homework on all the technical aspects of the project, and researched studies on how other cities have achieved this same objective. Key staff are on board to begin creating barriers between the car lanes and new bike lanes on the main street downtown. For Dennis and his colleagues, this means there’s less room for polluting cars and a delineated path for the city’s environmentally-conscious bike community. What’s not to love?

See Dennis in trouble

Well, as the construction begins, some very well-connected business people based downtown start placing angry calls to the mayor’s office. Turns out that the “review” process was so badly publicized and attended that few of the stakeholders downtown along the proposed bike paths had heard about this project and what it would do for their businesses. To them, bike paths meant losing customer parking. Long story short, some wealthy, well-connected people got the mayor and city council to halt the project for an undefined cooling-off period to allow time for further community input.

See Dennis confuse a technical challenge with an adaptive one

So what happened here? Dennis had the technical part of the proposed project down perfectly, from the cooperation of the contractors and city workers to the budget, timeline and even environmentally safe road paint. However, he failed to understand that bike paths meant change and loss for those next to them. Business owners feared losing business due to less parking, and, just as important, they and local residents felt as though they had lost control of their neighborhood. Their tiny part of planet Earth had been destabilized by the Death Star. To them, it was all happening too fast, and nobody had bothered to explain the positive effects of bike paths, like bringing new clients into their neighborhood. The ultimate goal should be to create a neighborhood people wanted to visit and linger in — designed for people, not cars.

One book: changing your views on change

The entire process of change is summed up expertly in a book with the inspiring full title The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and World by Ronald Heifetz, Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky. Its main thesis is that there are two types of challenges: one type is “technical,” like how Dennis had his plans and paints in line, while the other is “adaptive” and focuses on how humans fear loss and must be convinced to buy into change in a very thoughtful way, lest they push back as they did to unprepared Dennis.

Trust me, you’ll really want to know this stuff

Before we can proceed with our bold plans for the 100% Community initiative, which in many ways represents a huge change from the status quo, we need to pause. We’re talking about redesigning communities, cities and counties so they have ten vital user-friendly services to provide vital care in times both calm and chaotic.

You may be thinking, “Who wouldn’t love our vision and plans?” or “Who doesn’t want to support surviving and thriving services?” but, unless we explain why we’re doing what we’re doing, lots of people won’t feel the love.

Instead, they’ll ask:

“Who’s paying for this?”

“Do all residents really deserve services?”

“Don’t you know we’re already doing all this?”

“Why spend time, energy and money on this when most folks are OK?”

“Why revitalize our downtown when people probably won’t visit anyway?”

“Who’s gonna make money off any of this?”

“If this project gets funding, then won’t that mean less funding for my agency?”

Lastly, “I just don’t understand how this is even possible?”

People are ruled by fear.

Change, to many people, is just plain loss, which can be scary. We already live in a culture that tells us at every possible opportunity that the world is falling apart. For people over 60, who happen to represent a huge voting bloc, as well as people in positions of local and state power, things are moving far too fast to keep up.

The field of study that focuses on change, called Adaptive Leadership, is one we all would benefit greatly from, even if we just had a basic understanding of the difference between a technical challenge and an adaptive one. Confusing the two can set projects back — sometimes indefinitely.

It’s adaptive challenges that cause leadership and followers to retreat from (and at times actively fight against) change, unless there is a process to help them see the benefits. If you only read two books this year, might I humbly suggest Adaptive Leadership (and that 100% Community book I heard about).

The benefits of Adaptive Leadership

Some things we promise you’ll be gratified to learn and/or have reinforced by reading Adaptive Leadership:

  • Understanding the root causes of the challenge you seek to solve.
  • Reflecting on why your agency or community hasn’t been able to move the needle on the challenge for decades or forever.
  • Identifying those in power on the city council, county commission, school board or chamber of commerce who could be allies, as well as who may initially attempt to block your progress.
  • Assessing your own personal, professional and political power, and how you might leverage it.
  • Designing what we call a change initiative, innovation or experiment to test out a new protocol, program or policy to improve the quality of a service or expand services.
  • Adapt to changing political, cultural and commercial landscapes and focus on building trusting relationships.
  • Using push-back and resistance as teachable moments, moving forward with compassion and understanding.

The “balcony”

One key element of Adaptive Leadership is the idea of “getting on the balcony,” i.e. stepping back from a challenge to get the big picture. Assessing the history of the problem is vital. Understanding the active players on both sides of an issue related to your project, and everyone who might be impacted directly or indirectly by your proposed changes will be invaluable when you’re trying to determine what to do next. Trust us, the authors really know their stuff, and there’s an entire industry built around Adaptive Leadership, one which we fully support. You can even order audio versions of the book and supplemental resources with Kate Winslet narrating.

Qualities to aspire to

Out of respect for the authors of Adaptive Leadership, I can’t reproduce all their brilliance in this article, but let me end by reflecting on qualities related to being an adaptive leader. Adaptive leaders are self-aware and committed to understanding others. They speak truth — often uncomfortable truths — but always with respect so those being guided feel valued. They’re transparent and lead by example. Proponents of Adaptive Leadership are lifelong learners and support that same quality in those they lead.

Before you stand in front of your colleagues at work, leaders at city hall or delegates at the United Nations asking for support, do yourself a huge favor. Immerse yourself in the process of Adaptive Leadership and then go change (and save) the world.

The future is what we make it. Join the evolution.

Please excuse any typos as I construct an article at 3am on only one cup of Joe. These stories are mine and mine alone. I do not represent any organization here. If one of my illustrations looks like a real human or three-headed hydra, that’s total coincidence. Words and images ©Dominic Cappello but share with everyone you know. Questions? Answers await you here:

A NY Times bestselling author, social justice activist, Oprah guest, co-author of Attack of the Three-Headed Hydras, 100% Community and Anna, Age Eight.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store