In a rapidly evolving world, we often look for quick and simple solutions to keep up.

Technical problems, like breaking a bone, can be fixed quickly by a hospital visit. But complex challenges, such as heart disease, aren’t so easily solved. They require deep discovery, engagement, empathy and collaboration.

“And getting to the heart of the problem is the first step to finding a potential solution”, said Adjunct Professor Farayi Chipungu, Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

“When my uncle was diagnosed with heart disease, he just wanted a pill. And while medicine could help with his symptoms, the real problem was his lifestyle. And that required significant change.”

At AGSM’s 2023 Professional Forum, Adjunct Professor Chipungu compared her uncle’s experience to that of business leaders looking to transform their organisation. Big changes in life – and in business – are hard. And they can’t happen without taking into consideration a person’s – or a business’ – entire ecosystem. Because change doesn’t happen in isolation.

For Adjunct Professor Chipungu helping her uncle get better meant getting him on board with the new changes he needed to implement – while also mobilising his wife, friends and his entire community, who have significant influence on his lifestyle.

And she said businesses should also embrace a similar approach to change.

“It’s the same in business. You can get a consulting company to come into your organisation and give you a wonderful script of all the things you need to do to cut costs and increase innovation and collaboration. But it’s not a solution until it is lived in the hearts and minds of the person facing the challenge and in the hearts and the minds of their community,” said Adjunct Professor Chipungu.

For leaders, this is often a primary challenge, as change can impact the organisation and people’s deeply held values and beliefs.

Adaptive leadership arms leaders with a set of tools and frameworks that allows them to address these interpersonal pressures and mobilise people to make progress on complex challenges.

Hear from three industry leaders who are leading change in their organisations and how they’re using Adaptive leadership models to make meaningful progress.

Start with deep listening

Aware Super operates in a competitive and rapidly consolidating market. One of the firm’s most complex challenges is mobilising its people to drive innovation to create a lasting competitive advantage.

Embarking on a people transformation initiative, Katrina McPhee, Chief of Staff at Aware Super, and her team quickly learned that change was impossible without listening deeply.

“Unfortunately, we weren't ready to listen at the start,” McPhee said. “Our people started telling us, ‘This is terrible, this is not working, I can't get my job done.’ They told us we were not responding to the right problem and not listening to our members.”

So the leadership team started listening. And they found that although people had the right skills, tools and motivation, they quickly got sucked back into a system that didn’t support the behaviours needed for change.

“There are processes, pressures and ways of working that derail our ability to think. We quickly realised that we needed to address the whole system, and not just one aspect of it,” shared McPhee.

For Aware Super, this included thinking about the culture they want to build in the organisation that will drive the business forward. Rather than simply allocating budget to “go transform people,” the company is ruthlessly focused on also creating time for people to think productively about the whole issue and not just the quick fix solution.

“There is a constant push-and-pull between delivering results and doing the right thing and what's intuitively next. But whatever the solution is, it needs to be a system-wide approach,” she said.

See also: Making messy challenges manageable with adaptive leadership

Engage people in the ‘why’

International management consultancy, NOUS Group, is helping organisations solve some of the most complex adaptive problems in the world today.

Greg Joffe, Principal at NOUS Group, said one of the first and most critical steps they take when trying to create change is to help people understand why it is needed.

“Unless people believe there’s a good reason to change and they actually care about the benefits, they’re not going to come on the journey with you,” said Joffe.

This was key in helping the Department of Defence improve their customer satisfaction across 117 defence bases around the country, Joffe said.

“We spent a lot of time reconnecting people with the purpose of the Defence Force – why they’re there and what their role is in maintaining its capabilities. We also dived deep into what this means for how they do their work and how they could make processes better.”

By engaging staff in the purpose of change, Joffe and his team helped develop a shared commitment for a high-performance, customer-outcome-focused and collaborative culture.

This kind of culture is critical in helping organisations solve truly complex challenges, Joffee says.

“The old hierarchical structures where middle management controls all information is disappearing quickly – making way for a more collaborative culture. And important components of adaptive leadership include the willingness to listen and create a safe space for everyone to raise their views and help you get there faster.”

Bring people along on the journey

One of the biggest learnings about transformation for Sydney Trains has been around collaborating with and getting their people involved in major change initiatives.

To replace some of the oldest trains running on the NSW train network, Sydney Trains embarked on designing a new intercity fleet. But the organisation didn’t consult the drivers who would be operating these new trains during the initial design process, and the trains ended up with a number of critical issues – leading to industrial action and significant delays in the project.

So now Sydney Trains is focused on bringing all of their people on every step of the journey.

“We focus on connecting people with the why, and then focusing on what solutions might look like in terms of working with the frontline,” explained Matthew Longland, Chief Executive of Sydney Trains.

“Some of the skills of adaptive leadership is to think about change in a way that collaborates, engages and seeks to find solutions with the people that do the job every day. That way, you've got a much better chance of creating a coalition around moving towards a new place.”

Longland says adaptive leadership helps organisations get back to basics, prepare for change and connect with their people.

"In today’s world, change is happening so fast. You need to be able to respond to change, bring people along the journey. It’s about people working together to understand what the change means, how to get the opportunities from it and improve the way you work by involving those that do the work.”

See also: How to disappoint people and manage change as an adaptive leader.

Change is a team sport

Transformation would be easier if one person could make it possible. But, at both a personal and an organisational level, this is simply not the case. Just as the ecosystem around Adjunct Professor Chipungu’s father enables him to make potentially life-saving changes, so can a business’s greater ecosystem unlock the potential for change.

Having a group of influencers or people with social capital who can help leaders rally their cause throughout the organisation can be critical in making change happen.

McPhee has created a coalition of the willing at Aware Super after realising that “brilliant thinking and brilliant work” in isolation was having limited success.

“We formed this group, spending six months building trust and rapport. We're champions for each other, and champions for all of the work. And we make sure that when we're feeling the system, talking to people or getting feedback, we can identify opportunity, not just to our area of expertise, but to others’ as well.”

But even with a strong coalition, change will struggle to progress without a culture that encourages and creates a safe space for people to challenge ideas and offer solutions, according to Joffe.

“You need to create a culture where people don't automatically respect the hierarchy, where people have access to information and can make good decisions. I think that shift is underway. And that's an important part of adaptive leadership – our willingness to listen to others and creating space for them to raise their views,” he said.

If leaders only consider parts of the system when trying to make progress, they will have limited success. But when they are willing to spend the time to listen and speak to the hearts and minds of the people involved in the day-to-day and invite them to collaborate with you, then you will start to see progress on even the most complex challenges.

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