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Framing the Adaptive Challenge While Simultaneously Co-Creating a Shared Vision

November 19, 2009

How can we mobilize people to address tough challenges? Is a compelling vision of the future sufficient to drive people to action or is something else needed for people to embark in a transformative process? Peter Senge and Ronald Heifetz provide two complementary approaches to leading transformative change.

For Heifetz, transformative work requires individuals or groups to identify their adaptive challenge, i.e., identify the “gap between the shared values people hold and the reality of their lives, or of a conflict among people in a community over values or strategy.” Acknowledging the gap creates distress, as people have not yet developed new mental models that are better aligned with the new reality. The distress itself, when effectively managed, is the source of transformative power. The role of the adaptive leader is to mobilize the group to face its own problems, challenge old norms and assumptions, and create a holding environment to regulate the distress so that individuals and groups do not get overwhelmed as they undergo deep personal and organizational changes.

For Senge, a vision – whether it is a personal vision or a shared vision – is essential to the creative process and to generative learning – “expanding your ability to create”. As he notes in The Fifth Discipline:

“A shared vision is not an idea. It is not even an important idea such as freedom. It is, rather, a force in people’s hearts, a force of impressive power. It may be inspired by an idea, but once it goes further – if it is compelling enough to acquire the support of more than one person – then it is no longer an abstraction. It is palpable. People begin to see it as if it exists. Few, if any, forces in human affairs are as powerful as a shared vision.”

A shared vision drives and motivates people to accomplish big things – to imagine a world of possibilities and co-create a new reality. Yet, any effort to enlist people around a vision may be wasted when worldviews are at odds with the direction presented. For a vision to support transformative work it has to generate new meaning and new meaning can only arise when people are open, willing and able to challenge their traditional mental models and worldviews. As generative learning takes place, creativity becomes possible.

For a vision to be truly empowering, people need not only to buy into it but also to make it their own. While the approach taken by most traditional visionaries was to impose their own vision of the future onto others, visions today are co-created through conversations and dialogues among stakeholders. When those conversations and dialogues are conducted in a safe environment, tough issues are brought to the surface without generating conflicts while the integration between divergent ideas creates the potential for new meaning to arise. It’s the processes of open dialogue and deep listening that generate the transformative power from which a combination of new worldviews and shared vision emerge.

Heifetz, R. A. 1994, Leadership Without Easy Answers, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

Senge, P. M. 1990, The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization, Currency Doubleday, New York.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter Korchnak permalink
    December 15, 2009 7:14 pm

    The upcoming sustainability unconference Beyond 2020 deals with mobilizing (business) people around sustainability.

    This would be a great session topic!

    • December 15, 2009 7:38 pm

      Peter, thank you for stopping by.
      You are right: this topic would work well with the theme for the unconference. I’ll see what I can do!
      Thank you for the suggestion.

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