Have you ever encountered a problem that just won’t seem to go away?  While the solution may seem obvious – the next great idea, in fact – do you continue to run into resistance from others to get on board with the change?

This course is based on the idea that anyone can create change.  The course will introduce you to tools and techniques that help you adapt and thrive when facing challenges at work or even at home!

In this course, you’ll 

  • come to understand the cause of issues that just won’t go away
  • learn how to partner with “change makers”
  • understand why people are resistant to new ideas
  • learn to navigate trust issues, conflict, distress and resistance

Click on the tabs below to navigate through the four sections of this course.

Do you spend most of your time “doing”?  If so, you’re likely not seeing things from a strategic position.  Let’s learn to look at things from a different perspective.

Getting on the Balcony

People tend to want to be where the action is – on the dance floor.  Engaged in the dance of emails, instant messages, meetings, cell phone calls and never-ending to do lists.  However, it’s almost impossible to really see what’s happening and why from the dance floor.  Too much activity – the music, our partners, the dance itself – makes strategic observation difficult.

What’s the Dance Floor?

The dance floor is where the day-to-day work gets done.  It’s full of action items, deadlines, and distractions.  If you’re feeling stuck on the dance floor, now is a great time to learn to get in the balcony.  Above the swirl of daily activity, things look different.  You notice patterns in how you and others behave.  You see things you claim to care about, and are able to notice that your behaviors may indicate otherwise.  Getting on the balcony allows you to see the big picture and get a new perspective in the midst of all the activity.

Leading from the Balcony

Leading through change requires helping people gain clear perspective in the midst of uncertainty; helping them to make sense of complex, often conflicting signals and information; and sifting through what’s most important, what’s at stake, who is supporting the change, and who is resisting.

From the balcony, you can identify patterns and dynamics, interpret trends and find deeper understanding of all of the activity happening on the dance floor.  You see the various systems available that can create new possibilities, strategies, choices and outcomes.  And that will help you more effectively mobilize people around the right issues to move change forward.

It takes discipline not to be seduced by the satisfaction of getting things done.  Yet, lasting change is more likely if you are willing to spend the time up front to truly understand the problem you’re trying to solve.


Getting in the Gap

One of the first things you’ll see from the balcony is the gap between your current reality (the way things are today) and your desired reality (the way you’d like things to be).  For example, you may notice that while you value the importance of being a strategic thinker, you don’t make time to think long-term or collaborate regularly with your colleagues.  This represents a gap between values and behavior.  Or perhaps you’ve put systems in place to gather feedback from your coworkers, but see that you aren’t getting honest, meaningful responses (a gap between intention and results).

The gap represents possibility – an opportunity for creativity and innovation to thrive, not merely an issue to be solved.


Using the Getting in the Gap worksheet below, identify a gap or challenge your group or business is currently facing.  You can use this challenge as your work through the course, learning how to lead others and making sure you’re not dancing alone.

Once you’ve identified your “gap”, use the Getting on the Balcony worksheet to help you become an objective observer of your gap issue and yourself!

When you hang out in the balcony for a while a funny thing happens.  You begin to see that the seemingly irrational behavior of people suddenly makes sense.  As the inner logic of people’s behavior begins to reveal itself, you can use this insight to mobilize key stakeholders rather than simply convince them.  It’s a profound shift!

As your focus becomes less about “the problem”, and more about people’s relationship to the problem, new strategies emerge for how to engage them in your efforts to narrow the gap.

Too often we try to mobilize people by developing a strong business case and then marketing our idea – almost as if leading through change is a sales job.  We inevitably become frustrated when this approach doesn’t generate the buy-in or support we expected, and we’re perplexed about why people “just don’t get it.”

The fact is, each person involved in or affected by the proposed change has a distinct set of values, loyalties and losses at risk that inform how they behave.  Because of this, getting buy-in requires more than just a clear value proposition.  It involves identifying and moving forward amidst competing and sometimes irreconcilable motivations.

Leading through change is deeply relational work.  Your relationship with individuals involved in the change is one of the most important factors in determining results.  The “work” of engaging people in change can be trying, particularly when people are resistant.  Avoid the work, and it’s unlikely you will effect lasting change.  Understand the work, and you can create more meaningful and impactful change.


Who’s In This With Me?

If leading through change is truly a group effort, who are the people on your team?  Your partners in change fall into six categories.  Let’s take a look at who they are and how to engage them.

Allies/Partners:  These are partners with the most to gain if you succeed.  Allies will support your effort, but generally won’t take the risk with you, while partners will put “skin in the game”.  Stay loyal to partners and work to cultivate allies into partners by incorporating their values into the process.

The Opposition:  These are stakeholders who actively impede progress.  They feel the loss they’ll experience isn’t work the purpose being served by the change.  They usually have the most to lose and are therefore the toughest group to deal with.  You’ll want to spend a lot of time with them so that you sufficiently understand their perspective and can help pace their loss.

The Casualties:  Casualties are stakeholders who will be left behind as a result of the change.  Many of us assume we can drive change with zero casualties, but that’s rarely true.  How you handle casualties matters.  Everyone will be watching so be sure to treat casualties respectfully on their way out.

The Troublemakers.  People who consistently sound the alarm on the need for change, but do so in a way that results in their own marginalization are called troublemakers.  Protect their voice, but also make clear the boundaries of your protection.

The Authorities.  These are people who hold considerable formal or informal power – like your boss.  Keep an eye on them to gain insight into what your group or organization can tolerate.  Their power is not limitless, so they can only protect you to a point.

Yourself.  Remember that you have your own commitments that will affect your choices.  Don’t let your passion for change make you a target.  Criticism or flattery isn’t always personal or about you.


Where’s My Team?

Now that you know who your potential teammates (and opponents) are, let’s look at what makes people resistant to change, seemingly despite their best interest.

Value.  People will show you what they value based on their behavior, not based on what they say.

Loyalties.  These are the people, teams or constituents that exist behind each stakeholder that they may feel beholden to or responsible for.  Change may be perceived as betrayal of these loyalties, making it hard for your stakeholder to support you, even if they want to.

Losses.  This is what the stakeholder could lose if change is made.  Potential losses could be identity, competence, comfort, reputation, time, status, security, power, autonomy or resources.



Now that you know who your partners in change are, and have some idea of why they are, or aren’t jumping on board with your new idea, you can use the worksheet below, The Partnership Map, to better understand what’s informing their behavior and how to address it.

Know what you’re dealing with.

So far you’ve spent time learning how to issues from a new perspective – up on the balcony.   You’ve also identified different types of stakeholders that will help, or hinder, your ability to affect change, and understood reasons why they may be resistant to being “all in”.

Now that you know who you’re dealing with, it’s time to learn what you’re dealing with.


What’s the Problem?

Problems fall in to one of two categories – technical or adaptive.  Technical problems are problems that have known solutions.  They can be solved by an expert or by employing some known technology.  They don’t require leadership.

Adaptive problems on the other hand, can’t be solved by an expert because the solution to the problem is unknown.  Adaptive problems live in the hearts of people themselves, not the experts.  They require supporting people through loss and learning as they reexamine their values and loyalties.

Being able to distinguish between a technical problem and an adaptive problem is crucial.  Putting a technical fix on an adaptive problem results in a waste of resources and time, a cycle of failure, and an eroded sense of commitment and hope for those involved in the change.


Technical Problems

Below are some useful tips that will help you identify when a problem is technical.

  • the problem is easily recognizable and you know how to solve it.
  • there is a clear problem and a clear solution
  • an expert or authority can complete or delegate the task to make progress toward the solution
  • the problem can be solved with facts, logic or subject matter expertise.


Adaptive Problems

A problem is likely adaptive if it has some or all of these characteristics.

  • It’s a recurring situation that keeps showing up despite attempts to solve it
  • It’s difficult to define
  • You don’t have sufficient information, authority or power to address it
  • You feel it in your “gut”; you can’t quite explain it, but have an intuitive sense that something’s not right
  • People would rather avoid the issue because it feels too risky
  • The required change disruptive – entrenched in behaviors, norms and ways of working
  • Multiple stakeholders with (potentially) competing interests are involved
  • Stakesholders need to learn new skills and/or form new relationships

It would be easy, and convenient if problems fit neatly into one of these categories.  Most problems, however, contain both technical and adaptive elements.  To effectively lead people through change, it’s important that you are able to identify which elements of the issue at hand are technical, and which are adaptive, so they can be dealt with correctly.


Activity:  Reframing Your Challenge

By now, you may be discovering that the way you’ve been thinking about your problem is part of the problem.  You may want to consider other ways of describing or framing your challenge so that you can better mobilize others to assist.  Consider the prompts below and see if you can articulate your challenge (or “the gap”) in three different ways:

  1. Describe it as you normally talk about it with a colleague, friend or family member
  2. Describe it as it looks from the perspective of another person involved, such as someone who has the most to lose from the change you want to make
  3. Describe it in a way that shows how you yourself may be contributing to the problem.  (Hint:  your contribution to the problem probably doesn’t show up in version 1 or 2!)

In completing this activity, you’ll likely notice that versions 2 and 3 include elements of learning and or loss, adaptive work, where version 1 is typically more technical.


Activity: Unbundling Your Challenge

Use the worksheet, Unbundling Your Challenge, to help you further flesh out the adaptive and technical elements of the challenge you earlier identified

Congratulations!  This is the last module of the course.  So far you’ve learned the importance of getting on the balcony so you can see things from a different perspective, identify the gap between the current and desired reality, identify and understand the different stakeholders involved in achieving the desired reality, and distinguish between adaptive and technical elements of a problem so you don’t waste time and resources applying an ineffective solution to a problem.


Adaptive Experimentation

Now that you see your situation in a new light, it’s time to get back on the dance floor and experiment with a new kind of dancing.

We know adaptive challenges can’t be soled with technical solutions.  Fortunately, there is a tried and true way to approach this situation.  Experimentation.

Experimentation means making a hypothesis, testing it, updating it and testing it again.  Adaptive experiments follow a similar approach – with a little twist.

Because the people with the problem are essential the problem, experimenting on an adaptive challenge is itself an act of mobilization.  That is, the people involved enact the solution through their active search for one.  This is what makes adaptive experimentation unique.


Designing Your Adaptive Experiment


Using the work you’ve done in the previous three sections, and the worksheet, Designing Your Adaptive Experiment, to outline the first small experiment you would like to bring to your dance floor.

Consider the following as you begin to construct your adaptive experiment:

Start small.  Be careful not to let impatience or over-ambition rush you prematurely into a courageous conversation with a troublemaker, opposition or authority.  It’s usually better to start with a partner or ally.

Choose your target stakeholder and objective.  Generally speaking, whoever you choose to engage with first, you need to 1) deliver on an expectation or need they have for you, which will help build informal authority, 2) learn from them and help them learn about their values, loyalties and loses as it relates to the issue, and 3) make an ask.  Who you choose to start with will change your approach slightly but each of these three pieces should be part of your action on the dance floor.

Know your hypothesis.  By the time you’re ready to engage with your stakeholders, you’ve already identified the gap you’re trying to narrow and have done at least one round of analyzing their values, loyalties and losses – allowing you to articulate why they may find it difficult to narrow the gap.  As the last step of your adaptive experiment design, consider the key behavior change or “ask” you want your stakeholder to engage in to narrow the gap.  Be sure to write down your prediction about what will happen so you can compare it to what actually happens.


Activity:  Download the following document to guide you through the activity of closing your gap.

Designing Your Adaptive Experiment


 Are you ready?

As you get ready to conduct your adaptive experiment, you might find yourself having second thoughts.  Do you understand the situation thoroughly?  Can you afford to take the risk?  Perhaps more importantly, can you afford not to?

Stepping into leadership can be risky.  Readying yourself and others requires understanding what holds us back from starting, and what mitigating the risk looks like once you’ve begun.

Here are common things that can hold you back from summoning courage for the work of leading through change.

  •   Loyalties to people who may not believe you are doing the right thing.  The people you depend on and who depend on you can feel disappointed or betrayed when you act differently.
  • Fear of incompetence.  Not having an answer can make you feel like a fraud or leave you feeling vulnerable.
  • Uncertainty about the right path.
  • Feeling some loss of sense of comfort, security, routine or identity
  • Not having the patience for the time and effort required to make change happen.


Why it feels risky?

When you call attention to tough questions, you take people out of their comfort zones by surfacing deep value contradictions or drawing people’s sense of responsibility beyond their current norms.

Conducting even a small adaptive experiment can introduce disorientation, frustration or even conflict as people begin to face an issue they’d much rather avoid.  In an environment when people feel discomfort and perceive inherent risks, you, as a leader, need to be present and compassionate to their level of pain and confusion, so it doesn’t get too high.  At the same time, when leading people through change, you need to be aware of the fact that without some level of eustress (good stress that serves as an impetus for change) people will stay stuck in the status quo.

The delicate balance between eustress and distress has been called the productive zone of disequilibrium (PZD).  


Orchestrating Disequilibrium 

The Productive Zone of Disequilibrium or the PZD (Heifetz, R., Grashow, A., & Linsky, M. (2009). The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business Press.) The PZD is like a pressure cooker: set the temperature and pressure too low, and you stand no chance of transforming the ingredients in the cooker into a good meal. Set it too high, and the cover will blow off, sprawling the ingredients of your meal across the room.

The following graphs shows what adaptive work looks like over time.

Technical problems generally get resolved quickly with a lower amount of disequilibrium and a shorter period of time. Problems that require changing hearts and minds – adaptive problems – take more time and require a sustained disequilibrium.

Orchestrating disequilibrium requires letting in enough “heat” to keep people above their comfort zone, but not so much that they exceed their limit of tolerance. Understanding how people avoid staying in the PZD will help you be better prepared to prevent that from happening when you are managing the “heat” on the dance floor.


Avoiding Work Avoidance

Because the productive zone of disequilibrium is the space in which people have to make tough choices, confront conflict, take risks and interrupt the status quo, there is a natural tendency to get out of the zone. We call this work avoidance.

Work Avoidance Form 1: Displace Responsibility

  • + Shoot the messenger > Marginalizing the person raising the issue
  • + Delegate the adaptive work > To consultants, committees or task forces
  • + Attack authority > Compelling them to take the work back prematurely
  • + Scapegoat > Blaming others who aren’t in the room


Work Avoidance Form 1: Divert Attention

  • + Launch technical fixes, therefore wasting time and resources
  • + Defining the problem to fit your own competence, and therefore taking potential,
  • creative solutions off the table
  • + Creating a proxy fight, such as a personal or personality conflict, to avoid the real issue
  • + Denying the problem and leaving it unaddressed and unresourced

Understanding that these forms of work avoidance can happen and being able to point out when people engage in this behavior is important when you are trying to manage and control the “heat” with your group or team.


 Now that you’ve completed all of the modules in the course, consider the following:

How has your approach to leadership and what it means to be a leader changed through this course?

How has your mindset about what is means to be “adaptive” changed?

How has your confidence in your abilities as a leader to address challenging situations changed through learning about how to lead through change?

What situations will you respond to differently?  How will your response differ?

How will you use these lessons in your everyday life?

Hopefully, you’ve learned valuable techniques that will help you more effectively lead through change and make meaningful progress toward closing your “gap”.  

Click here to complete the course.