Transformational Performance-Based Leadership: Addressing Non-Routine Adaptive Challenges


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Originally published on Ivey Business Journal. Issues: January / February 2012,

A leader’s job is to create contexts that will allow followers to adopt new perspectives on the challenges they face, and therefore, new actions that lead to higher levels of performance. The observations offered by this author will be extremely valuable to any leader hoping to achieve this important goal.

With the exponential increase in the complexity of global business, managers and leaders must remain adept at addressing both routine and non-routine challenges.

Modern management theory and practice have all but conquered what it takes to address routine challenges successfully. Unfortunately, the strategies and thinking that are so successful for meeting routine, well-defined challenges do not seem to have the same predictable success rate when applied to non-routine, adaptive challenges. Some interventions work some of the time, but not all of the time and certainly not across industries or in all situations. At best, we are left to the cumulative efforts of several interventions that, when applied together, produce some incremental improvement (for example, incentive systems, inspirational talks, new policies, reorganizations).

Most management interventions are transactional in nature – they assume a standard cause-effect relationship. For example, one might think if they put in the right incentive system, give the right inspirational talk, publish the right policy, add the new IT system, etc., the effect will be an increase in performance (Erhard, Jensen, Barbados Group, 2010). These transactional interventions generally do the job if we have steady performance and we experience some hiccup, or are looking at making an incremental improvement. In such cases, employing a transactional intervention is the appropriate method to address routine challenges.

Most managers have not yet developed the same repertoire of strategies to deal with non-routine challenges – those that are adaptive in nature, for which there is no known solution and that require a new way of thinking (drawing on Heifetz & Sinder solution typology, 1988). Without an effective strategy to address these non-routine challenges, many managers are left to work harder, faster or on a greater scale to implement a transactional strategy.

When our transactional interventions fall short, we can generally explain why they fell short with some combination of circumstantial factors or factors that refer to the characteristics of the people carrying out the initiative (i.e., “buy-in”, conflicting personalities, resources, some version of “they” don’t get it; or if all else fails, “politics” etc.). Such explanations, while they may temporarily help us feel less responsible for falling short, do little to really improve the effectiveness of the organizations we lead (Erhard, Jensen, Barbados Group, 2010). This article will recommend several principles and strategies that will allow us to address non-routine challenges.

Continue reading this paper on the Ivey Business Journal here.