The Difference Between Technical and Adaptive Change

Last week I was in Minneapolis for the American Evaluation Association conference, and amongst the many excellent presentations was a plenary discussion about the difference between technical and adaptive change. It was called “Leadership for Evaluators: Engaging Clients in Adaptive Work” and was presented by Harvard lecturer Ron Heifetz. The core of his message was that when we apply technical solutions to problems that require adaptive change, we should not be surprised if we are disappointed with the results.

It was a very meaningful way to tell evaluators that we need to think about the change that we’re trying to evaluate. Organizations might be trying to create social change in various ways, but a lack of “success” (as defined by funders) may be related to a disconnect between what’s actually needed and what can be offered. More specifically, when we do our evaluation work we need to consider whether we have situated the “problem” that the organization is trying to address appropriately within its much larger human and social context. What are the assumptions underlying the funder’s or organization’s Theory of Change?

To explain the difference between technical and adaptive change and then to explain why evaluators should think about this, Heifetz gave the example of a woman who came into his medical practice after having been beaten up by her partner, but who – despite repeat visits to the emergency ward – could not bring herself to leave her abusive partner. Heifetz finally asked her why she continued to stay, and learned the depths of loss she would need to experience within her family and community if she left the marriage.

Heifetz very humbly described his own awakening to the understanding that, from his privileged perspective, there was a technical answer to the problem: you get hit, you leave. And yet, from her much more complex and embedded understanding, leaving the abuse would require so many adaptations in so many corners of her life, that it seemed insurmountable. She was worried she would lose her family’s acceptance and love, which might mean giving up on family gatherings for her children. She would need to accept that if she left it would expose the reality of her father’s abuse of her mother. The family boat might be irrevocably rocked. She would need to somehow regain enough confidence in her own ability to manage daily life, spend evenings alone, or handle her fear of inadequacy so as not to choose a new partner who did the same things. She only knew how to socialize at a bar and finding new ways to socialize with new friends seemed impossible.

Heifetz spoke about his dawning into the awareness that social purpose organizations have a huge task. The expectations of these organizations were massive, wickedly complex, emotionally-entangled, and systems-related … and yet the organizations were often only funded for a small piece of work or only for a short time or linked to unreasonable expectations of success. The leadership required of evaluators is to lay bare these and other faulty assumptions.

I think of that when I hear our Premier say, in response to the gangs of youth pillaging in our liquor stores, that he too grew up “poor” and never resorted to robbery. That we shouldn’t see these youth as victims.

That completely misses the mark. It suggests there’s a technical solution to the aggression and theft, when what’s really happening is a much larger, human and societal question that requires an adaptive solution designed by people who really know. Who have lived it. Who get it. The teens that are pillaging liquor stores are not looking for liquor. They’re not even really looking for money. They are screaming for help because they don’t know how to make a stable life for themselves. They see what we have and they have no idea how to get there. They have been neglected and abandoned by people and systems, and have lost hope that anything they do will make a real difference. That anyone will show them how to do this. That anyone will stick with them through thick and thin, as most of our parents did … whether we had lots of money or not. So yes, they are actually victims, but they’re victims of something much bigger than even they understand. It’s not about money. It’s about a wish for belonging and hope and security and love and “enough” so that the daily challenges become more bearable.

We have got to stop looking for technical solutions for complex social problems. I’m not for one second suggesting that those youth shouldn’t be responsible for their actions. There are always choices to be made. However, unless you really, deeply understand what those youth have been through, you don’t get to compare yourself to them from the safety and security of your fine home just because you didn’t have much money growing up. Again: it’s not about the money.

Which brings me to the point about social impact. Some kinds of value are emphatically not about money. They are about the kind of society we want to have. If we want to value only money, then we will keep looking for technical solutions for situations that require adaptive change. We need to start valuing and investing in adaptive change and just “suck it up, buttercup” that it’s going to take more learning, compassion, time, and resources than an election cycle. We cannot keep discarding people because adaptation takes too long.

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