This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Do We Really Want Adaptive Change?

Adaptive Change.

In the church these days leaders reflexively use language developed by management guru Ron Heifetz.  The main words describe two different kinds of change: “technical” and “adaptive.”  I have grown tired of hearing people throw these terms around as if “technical” change is bad and “adaptive” change is good.  Worse, I have witnessed leaders push their own agenda by wrapping it in the language of “adaptive change,” and criticize the opinions of others because it is merely “technical” and therefore woefully inadequate for our present situation.  

Heifetz himself says that adaptive change has to involve the whole community.  Secondly, he distinguishes between technical change, which is something we know how to do, and says that the main thing about adaptive change is that we don’t yet know how to do it.  This means that the very idea of adaptive change advocated or imposed by a visionary leader who must be followed, is wrong.

In The Practice of Adaptive Change, Heifetz then sets out these five characteristics of real adaptive change.  (P. 16ff.)    

1.  “Adaptive leadership is specifically about change that enables the capacity to thrive.”

2.  “Successful adaptive changes build on the past rather than jettison it.”

3.  “Organizational adaptation occurs through experimentation.”

4.  “Adaptation relies on diversity.”

5.  “New adaptations significantly displace, re-regulate, and rearrange some old DNA.”

In my experience, too many church leaders are talking a lot about adaptive change, but do not appear to want to engage in these 5 things.  

First, we have no consensus in the church concerning what it means to “thrive.”  Is it all about numbers of members or worshipers?  The size of budgets?  Expansion?  Missional faithfulness?  Even if leaders agreed on the definition of thriving, there is a wide disparity among the people in our churches about this, some of whom still harbor nostalgic fantasies about bringing back the glory days of the 1950’s.  Until we have some ballpark agreement on what a thriving church looks like, I wonder if continued conversation about adaptive change is even intelligible.

Second, some pushers of adaptive change seem allergic to the church’s past altogether, and will gladly jettison almost any tradition in the name of transformation and relevance.  Until we figure out how to interpret our past — what to lose, what to recover, and what to cherish — adaptive change is not happening.

Third, few churches and presbyteries allow themselves space for real experimentation.  Too many are looking for quick fixes and silver bullets, and are ready to hang it up if any idea fails or doesn’t succeed well enough.  We are suspicious of some churches that do engage in experimentation, even reacting violently to close them down in some cases.  Furthermore, many leaders are more interested in their own model being imposed rather than any kind of experimentation.  Finally, experimentation needs space and some kind of safety net so that people are willing to try different things without being paralyzed by a fear that failure will be prohibitively and personally costly.

Fourth, we still seem often to have an understanding that the goal is a new one-size-fits-all version of the church, and our processes are geared usually unconsciously in this direction.  Our polity and structures militate against diversity, privileging the old guard, the experts, and the veterans, almost all of whom happen to be older white people.  

Finally, adaptive change is real and deep.  It changes some basic values and practices of the organization.  It does require loss of some cherished things.  Few leaders are willing to go there, fearing that disrupting an already disoriented and traumatized organization will finish it off.  To be more blunt, they don’t want to alienate the sources of money that want and expect a return to the glory days.


So.  Leaders who are not moving in these directions should basically shut up about “adaptive change” because they are really not interested in it.