Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Technical vs. Adaptive Civics

Last week I had the chance to listen to a civic leader present a 20+ year retrospective of civic collaboration in Cleveland. He talked of museums, stadiums, airports, school districts and other developments in the city's ongoing evolution. The challenges and opportunities he discussed were real and meaningful. They all had one other thing in common. They were all technical in nature.

In Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, distinguish between technical problems: those that can be addressed with expertise and authority; and adaptive problems: those that require experiments, new discoveries and adjustments from multiple places within the community.

Building museums, replacing a football team and expanding an airport can be very demanding civic challenges that do indeed require multiple parties to work together (one form of collaboration) and civic leadership. However, the collaboration required to solve a technical problem is much different than what is required to address an adaptive problem. The solution to a technical problem can be determined before a collaboration is designed or implemented. For example, it may take collaboration to finance a stadium, but the answer to how to finance it is known in advance. In contrast, the solution to an adaptive problem emerges from the collaboration process. For example, there is no technical solution to ending hunger within a community, but solutions can emerge through engaging key stakeholders using frameworks such as collective impact.

Heifetz and Linsky warn that the most costly leadership failure they see is when leaders use technical skills and practices to solve an adaptive problem. "When people look to authorities for easy answers to adaptive challenges, they end up with dysfunction," they wrote.

One can still be a Cleveland booster and acknowledge that our community suffers from a significant amount of dysfunction. The city's police department is operating under a federal consent decree. A population exodus that began decades ago has slowed, but persists. Regional planners have warned of unsustainable development practices. Infant mortality levels are among the highest in the country. And educational outcomes lag well below the nation. Each of these signs of dysfunction reflect an inability to address adaptive problems.

It is in the area of education that the differences between the technical and adaptive are so clear. Over the last 20 years there have been two major efforts to improve education in Cleveland. Both were technical efforts. The first involved changing control of the Cleveland school district. It replaced an elected school board with a CEO appointed by the mayor. The second effort, called the Cleveland Transformation Plan, gave administrators more authority, flexibility and resources. Both efforts relied on authority and experts to define the problem and develop the solution. Both of these efforts have created positive change, although the state still rates the district an "F" on its annual report card.

Technical solutions are needed, but education is the ultimate adaptive problem. The issues that influence educational outcomes extend well beyond the walls of any school building. Housing, health and income greatly influence student performance. No school CEO, even one empowered to hire and fire at will, controls those factors. CMSD CEO Eric Gordon knows this, that is why he advocates comprehensive, neighborhood-based approaches to improve educational outcomes like the one supported by the Third Federal Foundation in the Broadway-Slavic Village Neighborhood. That effort is taking an adaptive approach -- a lot of experiments and constantly adjusting -- to holistically address all of the barriers to educational success, including housing and health.

Technical solutions attract attention and resources in part because they are clear and defined. Adaptive approaches -- which evolve over time and are therefore difficult to explain -- struggle to get noticed, let alone support.

If Cleveland, or any community, is to live up to its promise, civic leaders need to excel at addressing technical problems and adaptive problems. The first step is recognizing the difference between the two.