Adaptive Management

Net Objectives' Adaptive Management Page.

Adaptive management is 'learning by doing’. It is a structured and systematic process for the continual improvement of decisions, management policies, and practices, by learning from the outcomes of previous decisions.

Adaptive Management Explained in Terms of the Balcony and the Dance Floor

Let’s say you are dancing in a big ballroom. . . . Most of your attention focuses on your dance partner, and you reserve whatever is left to make sure you don’t collide with dancers close by. . . . When someone asks you later about the dance, you exclaim, “The band played great, and the place surged with dancers.”

But, if you had gone up to the balcony and looked down on the dance floor, you might have seen a very different picture. You would have noticed all sorts of patterns. . . you might have noticed that when slow music played, only some people danced; when the tempo increased, others stepped onto the floor; and some people never seemed to dance at all. . . . the dancers all clustered at one end of the floor, as far away from the band as possible. . . . You might have reported that participation was sporadic, the band played too loud, and you only danced to fast music.
. . .The only way you can gain both a clearer view of reality and some perspective on the bigger picture is by distancing yourself from the fray. . . .
If you want to affect what is happening, you must return to the dance floor.*
So you need to be both among the dancers and up on the balcony. That’s where the magic is, going back and forth between the two, using one to leverage the other.
Heifetz, R., and Linsky, M. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002.

When we talk about changing an organization we often mean changing what the organization does.  This is referred to as technical change.  But this usually requires us to think differently about what we're doing and therefore requires a change in values and beliefs as well as behaviors.  Without this adaptive change, technical change either won't take root or will revert back to where it started from.  However, the two - technical and adaptive change - are not distinct.  They interact with each other and changing on e requires changing the other.

For more on the balcony and the dance floor see Terri Hughes' Blog.

For more on adaptive change see Carol Mase's Blog.

A common misconception of the balcony and dance floor metaphor.  The balcony is not where managers sit while they manage their people.  The balcony is where we observe our own actions on our own dance floor.  It is where we see how we are being while we are doing.  Members of a team typically have one dance floor and one balcony.  Their dance floor is where the work takes place, called the gemba in Lean terms.  Their balcony is when they step back to look at their actions at the gemba.  Managers typically have two different balcony and dance floors pairs.  One is when they work with the folks who report to them and the other is when they interact with their peers.

Books on Adaptive Management

Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading

The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World

Related Concepts - VUCA

VUCA - A Leadership Dilemma, by Carol Mase of Gearstream

Articles on Adaptive Change

Recap of Adaptive Change by Carol Mase of Gearstream

Virginia Satir Model of Change

Navigating Change for Success. Julie Denomme, Don Johnston, Carol Mase, Tom Roy, Cynthia Weeks, Tom Woodman.  A great article that illustrates the relationship between VUCA and the Virginia Satir model. It also introduces the 'cauldron of change.'