Skip to content

The Next Faithful Step

Technical and Adaptive Change

Scott Cormode, Fuller Seminary

"You Can't Quit Smoking for Someone Else": Technical Problems and Adaptive Challenges

Imagine you go to see a cardiologist. And the doctor tells you that you have a problem. You will need heart surgery, and you have to lose 25 pounds and quit smoking. Which of those things can the doctor do for you? Well, certainly the heart surgery. No one should try operating on their own bodies; it can get uncomfortable. But can the doctor lose weight for the patient? Can the doctor quit smoking for you? Of course not. There are some problems that no expert can solve for someone else—no matter how gifted or caring the expert is. You can’t quit smoking for someone else.

How do you help someone change who desperately needs to change, but desperately does not want to change? That question is a central dilemma for most Christian leaders. We are called to help people grow, to change—indeed, to be transformed. But our most important goals often lay just beyond our grasp. How do you help someone change who desperately needs to change, but desperately does not want to change—and how do you do it when you know there are some problems that no outsider can fix? You can’t quit smoking for someone else. So what do you do?

We are going to distinguish between two kinds of problems—those you can fix for someone else and those you can’t. And we are going to separate these kinds of problems because the ways we address those problems have to be radically different. This distinction comes from Ronald Heifetz of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. He calls the fixable problems “technical problems” and he calls the other kind “adaptive challenges.”1

Technical problems have a solution, and by a solution we mean that things will go back to the way they once were. For example, I had a student one time who was the Executive Pastor of a very large church in West LA. They had just built a large wing onto the building. One Saturday night a pipe burst and my student showed up on Sunday morning to discover that the entire new wing was flooded with six inches of water. This was an enormous problem. It took them weeks to assess the damage and clean up the mess. And then there were months of reconstruction. But eighteen months later, they had fixed the problem. Everything was back to normal. That was a technical problem. It was solvable in that a combination of money, time, and expertise could make the problem go away. 

We are accustomed to thinking all problems are technical problems—that if we work a little harder and try a little more we can fix whatever is wrong. And, indeed, that is how we usually judge our leaders. We think of successful leaders as people who make things happen; they fix problems. But some problems cannot be fixed; they cannot go away. Think about smoking. Say you heed your doctor’s advice and you quit smoking. And then after a few months, you go back to the way things once were—that is, you start smoking again. Is the problem “fixed”? Of course not. Things will never be the same again. You can’t quit smoking and then take it up again and act as if that has “solved” a problem. This is why Heifetz created the term “adaptive challenge.”

Adaptive challenges occur “when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge.” Look back at that definition. Adaptive challenges happen when we ask people to adopt new beliefs, when we hope people will pursue better values, or when we help people see that the ways that they have been doing things in the past will not work for them. Well, that’s the job description for ministry. Heifetz did not have ministry in mind when you wrote about adaptive change. Indeed, he was more interested in large social problems. But his work is crucial for we who minister in God’s name because of a key insight Heifetz makes about adaptive challenges. You cannot use technical means to reach adaptive ends. In other words, the techniques that we all learned for solving technical problems will not work if we want to change people’s beliefs, their values, or the ways that they always do things.

Let me illustrate what how it won’t work, and then we will talk about why it won’t work. Let’s start with an easy example. Say I have a friend who needs to quit smoking. What’s the first thing we all do? Well, we treat it like the problem is solely about the transfer of knowledge. I would try to explain to my friend why smoking is bad for him. What exactly do I expect to happen when I do that? Do I really think that my friend will turn to me and say, “Thank you for explaining that. I did not see these giant warning labels on the side of a cigarette packet. I guess I better quit now.” Of course not. But we try the explain-it-to-him plan because that’s what we know. If my friend needed to learn how to change a bicycle tire (or change a diaper) then I could help him by explaining the process of change. Transfer of knowledge would work then. So, what would you guess I might do when I discover that my smoker friend was not bowled over by my knowledge? When explaining does not work, I will try the next thing. I’ll talk louder—or with more emotion. But we all know that’s not going to work. I can’t tell him to quit. He has to discover for himself that he needs to quit and that he wants to go through the pain that quitting will entail.

But I don’t want to give the impression that there is no role for explaining things. For example, once my friend decides to quit, there is a lot I can do to explain to him about how hard it will be. I might explain, say, about the addictive qualities of nicotine so that he does not try to quit cold turkey. Perhaps I introduce him to nicotine gum so that he can taper off the addiction. If he did not know that nicotine was addictive, he might try to quit and find the cravings so overpowering that he gives up before he has even started. So there is a crucial role for explaining. But explaining will not make someone change. Why?

Adaptive change is painful. It costs someone something to respond to an adaptive challenge. It requires a lifestyle change. Think of my friend the smoker. One reason smokers don’t quit is that it is really hard to kick the habit. There are physiological reasons when it comes to smoking (mostly about chemical addiction). But there are social reasons too. It became a habit, a way of occupying your hands or something to do to fill the silences and relieve the stress. Even if we replace the physical need, the social need remains. That is true of lots of adaptive challenges. Changing a belief or a way of doing things is hard for me because I have built a lot of ideas around that belief and my routines around that way of doing things. It will be painful to change; it requires a lifestyle change.

Up to this point, I have avoided giving ministry examples because they are too easy to misunderstand until you have a mental picture of adaptive change. But now you have it. Adaptive change is like quitting smoking. It is painful. You can’t quit for someone else. So what does that look like in ministry?

Think about Mark 8, when Jesus explains what it means to be a Messiah. No one in history had more authority—more credibility—than Jesus had at that moment. The disciples had seen Jesus do miracles. They had seen him calm the sea, walk on water, and feed the five thousand. They had no doubt heard that at Jesus’ baptism God himself had testified, “You are my Son.” None of us in our ministries is going to get a real voice from heaven. But Jesus did. So he turns to the disciples after Peter has pronounced him Messiah, and he explains that their concept of the Messiah is mistaken. He explained that the Son of Man must suffer and die and rise in three days. The gospel says, “He spoke plainly about this.” And how did the disciples react? They told him he was wrong. This is how hard adaptive change is. Jesus himself in all his authority tried to explain something to them and they told him he was wrong. Why? Because it would have been painful to recognize that he was right. What did the disciples sign up for? They expected a Messiah that would conquer the Romans. They expected there to be a big throne for Jesus and little thrones for them—that’s why the mother of James and John was so interested in where her sons would sit. Why was adaptive change hard? Because it meant giving up the thrones. If ever there was a moment when technical means would work it was in Mark 8. Jesus had walked on water and had God himself testify on his behalf. None of us will ever have that kind of authority. But what happened? Adaptive change was so hard for the disciples—it would cost them so much—that Jesus himself could not convince them using technical means. And if it did not work for Jesus, how is it going to work for you and for me?

We are going to have to find a better way. In the next few articles, we will talk about a different approach—one similar to the one that worked for Jesus. Think of it this way. Jesus eventually got through to the disciples. But it wasn’t just by being a good teacher. What did he do? What can we do?

- - -

FAQ #1: Does “adaptive change” mean more than adapting?
In the years that I have been teaching on this topic, I have found one common misconception is that people adopt the language of adaptive change to talk about the need we all have to adapt. And that does not work well because those folks who use that language normally then describe technical means to adapting. You have to create, as we will see, a “holding environment” to respond to adaptive change. Technical means will not work.

FAQ #2: Astute readers might ask, “Wait a second, aren’t you using technical means to adaptive ends?” Here’s what they mean. I want you (the reader) to change one of your most beloved ways of doing things. I want you to stop using technical means to adaptive ends. But the way that I am trying to convince you of that is that I am explaining something to you—which is really a technical means. And that astute reader is right. That’s why this explanation is only part of a larger process. And that larger process is designed to be a “holding environment.” But please do not think that because you have read about adaptive change that you have now learned to practice it. Embodying what we describe here is a long and painful process.


1 Ronald Heifetz, “The Work of Leadership,” Harvard Business Review (January-February 1997); Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 1994) see, esp., Chapter 4; the quotations here come from these two sources.