Confusing Technical and Adaptive Challenges

C ompanies get into trouble when their managers confuse technical and adaptive challenges. A technical challenge has a right answer. It involves linear thinking, root cause analysis,  and straightforward trial and error.  Fixing the bad carburetor on a car is a technical challenge.

In contrast, adaptive challenges  have no clear solution. There is no protocol to follow. Indeed, multiple solutions are possible.

When it comes to strategy disciplines, strategic planning treats strategy is a technical challenge. Unfortunately, this process, as we know it, is largely ineffective.  The reasons are straightforward. Increasingly companies are now facing adaptive challenges. A number of destabilizing forces are shaping markets in unpredictable ways: digitalization, globalization, deregulation are all common factors cited in the latest business press.  Another factor — the convergence of technologies —  is not so easy for business commentators to capture.

Meeting adaptive challenges requires agile frameworks and tools.  Managing risks involves experimentation and designing stable processes of relentless experimentation. Through this collective combining of thinking and doing, strategies emerge that link and leverage the assets of the firm in new ways. As managers learn to think more horizontally (and less vertically),  they build networks outside the firm. These networks create new portfolios of assets that can be orchestrated in new combinations.

 Managers will continue to face technical challenges. Yet, increasingly they will face adaptive challenges. Distinguishing between the two will be an important skill. So, for example, mapping the workflow within a customer service center is a technical challenge:  establish protocols can be followed. Designing a new, more productive workflow within the customer service center is an adaptive challenge that requires agile strategy disciplines. 

Ed Morrison is Director of the Purdue Agile Strategy Lab. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia. For the past five or six years, he has been developing new, agile approaches to strategy in open, loosely joined networks, a discipline he calls Strategic Doing. Prior to starting his economic development work, Ed worked for Telesis, a corporate strategy consulting firm. In this position, he served on consulting teams for clients such as Ford Motor Company, Volvo, and General Electric. He conducted manufacturing cost studies in the U.S., Japan, Mexico, Canada, Italy, Sweden, and France. Ed started his professional career in Washington, D.C., where he has served as a legislative assistant to an Ohio Congressman, staff attorney in the Federal Trade Commission, and staff counsel in the US Senate. He holds a BA degree cum laude with honors from Yale University and MBA and JD degrees from the University of Virginia.

Strategic Doing and Dancing Landscapes

Over on our massively open online course (MOOC) introducing Strategic Doing, a student pointed to the work of Herbert Simon an […]

Diversity Drives Innovation: Here’s How

We’re finding more and more value in the concept of “strategic diversity” – that is, the way in which team […]

Designing platforms to design ecosystems

Ecosystems form on top of platforms. Ecosystem design starts with platform design.  By designing the platform and guiding interactions on […]

Start-up and innovation ecosystems: Testbeds

It’s no surprise that academic research often lags behind market developments (Brown & Mawson, 2017). What if, to help us […]

The shiny attraction of tax cuts

Years ago, as I was working on consulting teams, we helped companies like GE globalize their production. That meant moving […]

Our out-dated thinking about communities

Our traditional approach to community development no longer works. Consider these facts: The opioid crisis is overwhelming our capacity to […]