Strategy is an adaptive challenge not a technical problem. 

You are currently viewing Strategy is an adaptive challenge not a technical problem. 

The most common leadership failure is treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems (1)

This failure is particularly true in strategy design and implementation as the discipline of strategy has not yet caught up to the needs of adaptive challenges. 

Understanding technical problems and adaptive challenges in a complex world

Technical problems are those that can be solved by the knowledge of experts, using known techniques and good practices. Dave Snowden’s Cynefin Framework (2), was introduced in the Arkaro article Strategy in a VUCA world.  Technical problems are found in the Complicated Domain of the Cynefin Framework.

Adaptive challenges, on the other hand, are complex and ambiguous in nature, best solved by those with the challenge. Solutions to adaptive challenges require people to learn new ways of doing things, change their attitudes, and adopt an experimental mindset. The Cynefin Framework sees adaptive challenges as belonging to the Complex Domain.

Cynefin framework
Diagram of the Cynefin framework. Credit: Snowden on Creative Commons

In practice most business problems are bundled-some parts are technical and other parts are adaptive forcing the leadership questions: 

  • What parts are technical that can be solved with authoritarianism and expertise? 
  • What parts are adaptive and require development of new capability, attitudes and relationships? 

The most common leadership failure is treating adaptive challenges as if they were technical problems.  

So how do we distinguish between technical problems and adaptive challenges? The following table offers guidance.

Strategy is an Adaptive Challenge not a Technical Problem.

Consider the following example. A factory machine keeps breaking down. The repair is a fix to a technical problem. However, the root cause is an adaptive challenge. Increased new product competition and poorly defined sales policies generate multiple changeovers for an increasing number of rush orders in the belief that it will keep customers loyal. The machine was not designed to run this way, but long-term resolution is an adaptive challenge where multiple solutions seem plausible.  

Why you should see strategy design and implementation as an adaptive challenge.

Using the table let’s think through strategy design and implementation and try to understand whether it is predominantly a technical problem, or an adaptive challenge. (and since there is so much confusion on the definition the article “What is the definition of strategy?” might be helpful)

Problem definition

We cannot predict the future with certainty. Multiple versions are possible, and therefore goal setting is difficult as there are multiple likely scenerios.  According to Snowden when dealing with complexity, setting the direction of travel may be the more realistic approach than goal setting (3). Nevertheless, many business strategists take an approach more comparable to central planning. 

“I was always amazed that Western Capitalism adopted the planning cycle and approach of Soviet Russia!” Dave Snowden (4)

When developing strategy, the right approach may lie somewhere between these extremes. During iterative development the goal itself may need to be updated. Think of a start-up’s pivots as goals are updated based on new interactions and learnings with the environment for example. Nevertheless, aspirations are not easy to identify, suggesting strategy development has adaptive challenge characteristics.  

Typically, it is easy to start working on technical problems. For adaptive challenges work can be harder to initiate. Indeed, Heifetz & Linsky highlight the issue of “work avoidance”. Individuals fear the loss of well-known practices, as well as fearing the learning requirements and drop in competence by accepting the change. As these losses are perceived to be greater than any gains people avoid initiating and executing work – “work avoidance”.


Leadership on the Line
Source: Heifetz & Linsky “Leadership on the Line” (2002)

Think about how strategy is initiated in the places you have worked. Was it initiated with ease? Or more generally relied upon as an annual ritual largely swallowed up by the annual budget process limiting scope for real change? Without such a ritual would people be so engaged? Indeed, by giving so much attention to detailed Excel files, rather than addressing issues, is this not simply another expression of work avoidance? 


For how many businesses is the solution relatively straightforward?  Too often, strategy is seen as a linear, sequential strategy recipe that if followed will produce the “right answer” in a relatively straightforward approach. But in practice, the output can be an impenetrably long deck of charts with some recommendations as a list of goals. The organisation is left little wiser on what to do on a daily basis, and likely no attempt made to develop new capabilities and attitudes across the organisation to deliver change. The gulf between recommendations and execution remains vast. 

Who does the work?

Consistent with viewing strategy design as a Technical Problem to be solved by experts, Heifetz & Linsky (5) reference the common practice of hiring expert external consultants to develop business strategy:

“We also noticed that many of the recommendations were never implemented. Indeed, our impression is that the implementation failure rate of strategy consultancies is upward of 70%. Sometimes the whole report is literally put on a shelf, untouched” 

Whether the quality of analysis generated by these external experts to understand “What’s Going On is valid is not my point. Analysis is not the same as securing change within the organisation. From experience, I concur with Heifetz & Linsky that small consultancy firms may need to be brought in to help implement the strategy recommendations with the organisation:


“The key insight here is that strategic recommendations are not strategic solutions until they are refined and lived in the hearts, minds and actions of people”  

Of course, the same is true when an authoritarian hands down the strategy by decree to the organisation without involvement at local level. Stakeholder engagement cannot be expected to be high.   

Most business situations are a combination of both technical problems and adaptive challenges. It is not a binary choice.  However, the evidence presented makes a strong case that strategy design and implementation is an adaptive challenge. Sadly, too many leaders treat the strategic process as a technical problem. Which is why, too often, they fail to achieve their outcomes.

“Done with you” vs “Done for you” approach to support

Does this mean that experts are not helpful in strategy design? No. It is important to understand that internal and expert support should take a “Done with you” rather than a “Done for you approach”.  This theme is echoed in Roger Martin’s article “The Proper Role of the Chief Strategy Officer”(6) where he states:

“Strategy is not the job of the specialist. It is the job of the General Manager (GM) of the business in question, whether that GM is a CEO, Business Unit President, Product Line President, or even Brand or Product Manager.” 

Therefore, the role of the Chief Strategy Officer should be: 

  1. Facilitate the creation of strategy 
  2. Co-ordinate the creation of strategy 
  3. Ensure the consistency of strategy 

And if there is not adequate internal resource, I would argue that this holds equally true for external support.  

The Emergent Approach to Strategy

So what approach to strategy design and implementation should be used in a “Done with you” adaptive challenge? Dr. Peter Compo’s Emergent Approach to Strategy (7) offers an excellent guide. The Emergent Approach is a new theory and practice of strategy built on an adaptive view of change and innovation in contrast to “planning” the future. Replacing traditional stepwise linear processes with agile-like iterative approaches, it is well suited to approaching strategy as an adaptive challenge.  

I’ve been involved in the preparation of “The Emergent Approach to Strategy” for several years and can use this framework to support your product line and business teams as they design and implement adaptive strategies.  


(1) The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World” Ronald A. Heifetz & Marty Linsky (HBR Press 2009) 

(2) Cynefin – 

(3) (54) Dave Snowden – How leaders change culture through small actions – YouTube 

(4) “The Process of Strategy” Dave Snowden 

(5) Foreword to “Strategy as Leadership: Facing Adaptive Challenges in Organizations” Vassolo, Weisz 2022 

(6) The Proper Role of the Chief Strategy Officer | by Roger Martin | Medium 


Mark Blackwell - independent consultant Arkaro

Mark Blackwell

Mark Blackwell founded Arkaro in 2016 following a career in both large and small organisations, covering a wide range of industries across agriculture, food and chemicals. As Global Sales and Marketing Director Mark led the growth of the animal health company Antec International to its acquisition by DuPont. Leadership positions in DuPont developed expertise in Business Development, Innovation, Product Line Management, Integrated Business Planning, Business Productivity and Six Sigma Black Belt Project Management. At DuPont Mark worked with Pete Compo as the ideas forming the Emergent Approach to Strategy™ were developed.  In recent years Mark has been involved in the preparation of the Emergent Approach to Strategy and is the first affiliated partner to deliver to help product line and business teams design and implement adaptive strategies.

Mark is based in the Geneva, Switzerland area