How To Make An Adaptive Challenge Unlock Your Productivity


Adaptive leadership principles can help you reframe your current time management problems and enable you to unlock your productivity potential.

Before looking at how this works, let's start with an obvious quick question.

What the heck are adaptive leadership principles and what is an adaptive challenge?

The short answer is that adaptive leadership principles are set of guidelines which leaders can use whenever they’re faced with an adaptive challenge[footnote]There’s a longer answer available in The Work of Leadership by Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky if you’re interested.[/footnote].

So What Is An Adaptive Challenge?

You know you're facing an adaptive challenge any time your deeply held values (what you think's important) are challenged.

Here's an example.

Let's say you're newly diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes. Of course, your physician knows everything about the disease, including the long-term consequences for you if it's poorly controlled.

These potential complications include going blind, losing your leg(s) and having a stroke or heart attack.

The only way to avoid these complications may be to change how you live your life by making some potentially big changes. 

  • Making new choices about what and how much you eat.  
  • Developing new exercise regimes.
  • Losing weight.

It's very definitely an adaptive challenge because it poses fundamental questions about how you lead your life, what you eat and how much you exercise.

In this scenario, the doctor has a leadership job: working out how to get you mobilised to take better care of yourself.

Your job, on the other hand, is to figure out which adaptive changes to make and how to build them into your life.

There are six adaptive leadership principles:

1.Getting On The Balcony: See the bigger picture, get some perspective on what's happening.
2.Identifying the Adaptive Challenge: Work out what the challenge is and why it matters.
3.Regulating Distress: Allow yourself/organisation to feel some manageable pressure.
4.Maintaining Disciplined Attention: Keep focused on the issue at hand.
5.Giving the Work Back to The People: Support the change.
6.Protecting the Forces of Leadership From Below: Allow experimentation and learn from what works.

What's Your Personal Productivity Challenge?

Most of us want to get more done, be happy and stay healthy.

Yet this is a surprisingly difficult thing to pull off consistently.

Let's assume that you're like most people and you don't always spend as much time on the really important things as you'd like. Or that there are times when you feel more stressed than you want.

A lot of the personal productivity advice around urges you to adopt a methodology for tackling these kinds of problems.[footnote title=”2″] Typical examples of methods include David Allen’s GTD system or J.D. Meier’s Getting Results The Agile Way [/footnote]

There’s nothing wrong with the advice — in fact these methodolgies are really powerful.

But I’d like to suggest you add something else into the mix.

Why not start to think of your productivity issue as an adaptive challenge?

Then you can use adaptive leadership principles to figure out what needs to change to make things better.

Using adaptive principles could provide the breakthrough you're looking for which will unlock your productivity and create a less stressful situation for yourself.

That's because, once you've worked out what needs to change, your chosen methodology has a better chance of doing its thing.

Here's how to do it.

1. Get On The Balcony

Take a step back from what you're doing. Ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What are my most important goals?
  2. Am I taking action on them consistently?
  3. If I'm not, what are the main reasons why this is the case?

Your answers will help you address the next question.

2. Identify The Adaptive Challenge

Having located the key causes of your productivity problem, you now need to work out what you have to change if you're going to see an improvement and unlock your productivity potential. Some challenges might include:

  • Improving email management.
  • Building downtime into your day.
  • Rationalising your open tasks/projects.

You're trying to pinpoint the changes you need to make. So make an effort to be objective.

3. Turn Up The Heat

Knowing you need to make a change is one thing. Committing yourself to taking action to unlock your productivity is another thing entirely.

This is classic Elephant and Rider territory — you need to connect 'knowing' what to do (the rider) with your lumbering emotional elephant that might not feel the same way.


You can turn up the heat on your emotional commitment by listing all the many ways that failing to get on top of your challenge is going to lead to disappointment or failure. 

Or you could flip it around and get really granular and specific about what you want to achieve.

The key to making it stick is to use powerful imagery and strong emotional levers.

4.Stay Focused

Having set a course, you have to commit to it. One good way of doing so is to make yourself accountable to someone else for the change you want to make.

I talk about the evidence that backs this up and a number of other ways to maintain your focus in 26 Million Ways To Improve Your Time Management Techniques.

5. Support The Change

Now that you're taking action, it's important to gather information about how you're doing. Getting consistent feedback helps you stay honest. I use an app called Exist to help me do this.

Exist is the dashboard of my life, and by tagging the changes I want to make I can then use the power of Exist to find correlations that help me understand my behaviour better.

Exist aggregates data from a variety of feeds, then mashes them together into a personal dashboard. If you want to know if send fewer emails when you get more Twitter notifications, Exist will let you know.

6. Keep Experimenting

Build a regular weekly checkpoint in when you're able to review how things are working. Keep tweaking and adjusting as you evolve a way of working that suits you.

By thinking of your time management issues as an adpative challenge, could be the key which could unlock your productivity. 

What's your big adaptive challenge?