Technical vs adaptive problems

Benjamin P. Taylor
2 min readJun 3, 2021


I don’t quite know why this distinction is so valuable to people — but it is!

The attached is from a recent session to introduce a group to Adaptive Leadership, working alongside a genuine expert (I’m a sceptical, engaged dabbler).

Their challenge:
what to do about home/hybrid working post-pandemic?

Should people work from home? Be forced into the office? Be flexible? If work can be done from anywhere, should it just be outsourced to #India? It’s clear that #humanresources#innovation is required.

The fundamental distinction in approach between technical/programmatic/linear change and adaptive or complex/wicked/messy/social change is at the heart of Adaptive Leadership.

It’s given in full (my version) on slide 4 of the attached.

File: A core element of Adaptive Leadership — distinguishing technical from adaptive aspects of change

I have so many reservations about blending together all these technical definitions to give people this core differentiation — and I have reservations about Adaptive Leadership itself.

But just having people think about the distinction, work through which parts of their challenge fit into which category, is so powerful.
It generates so many breakthroughs. And most importantly, changes in thinking.

What do you think? Can you take a challenge you are faced with and identify the technical and the adaptive elements?

I mention my reservations. They are twofold:

  1. I have seen people go more, and more disastrously, wrong with Adaptive Leadership than with most other approaches. It feels more like a leadership model reacting against a broken system, than a complete approach in itself. It recommends flexibility and perspective — which is great — but does not seem to have guard-rails to really help people evaluate how they are doing.
  2. My slide intentionally blends a bunch of relevant, technical, and important distinctions. Not many socially complex problems are truly ‘wicked problems’ in the definition. Yet after a lot of experimentation, the many issues this allows people to consider — and the normalisation and recognition of aspects of their challenges otherwise unspoken and not brought into real consideration — seems to add a lot of value.

I’d love to teach people more about what I think leadership intrinsicaly requires, and differentiate more properly between ways they might usefully conceptualise their challenges. And often I do so. But this… this unlocks a lot!