In nearly 20 years of business, with over 1,000 teams and organizations, working across many sectors and industries we find that the most common cause of failure in leadership comes from treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems – a misdiagnosis of the problem and thus an inappropriate response and course of action.

A technical problem has known solutions that can be implemented by current expertise and know-how. (i.e. fixing a leaky faucet, putting out a house fire, writing effective code.) Adaptive challenges, in contrast, can only be addressed through changes in people’s priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties. (i.e. global warming, changing company culture, weight loss.) Making progress on an adaptive challenge requires going beyond any authoritative expertise to mobilize discovery, shedding certain embedded ways, tolerating losses, and generating the capacity to thrive anew. Here are ten signs you are working on an adaptive problem:

Properties of Adaptive Challenges

1. No Known Solution – There is a gap between the current reality and aspiration that you don’t have the skills or knowledge to close.

2. People Must Work Across Boundaries – No one person or group can fix the problem alone.

3. People Would Rather Avoid the Issue – Balancing two ideas is not possible; therefore, working on the challenge creates tension and conflict.

4. Reason and Logic Alone Won’t Get You There – There are competing values at play or there is a gap between what people say and what they do.

5. Recurring Problem – Challenge reappears after a fix is applied.

6. Emotional Response – Working on this challenge makes people feel uncomfortable; they experience an emotional response, such as a feeling in their gut or a knot in a muscle.

7. Failure to Resolve Competing Priorities – You are being asked to do more with less instead of making tough tradeoffs.

8. Moving Forward Feels Risky – Making progress on this challenge means putting your reputation, relationship, and job at risk.

9. Casualties – In order to move forward, some people may be left behind.

10. Progress Is Not Linear – No direct path to get to a better outcome; trial and error is necessary.