PROCESS POST: Adaptive Leaders, Orchestrating Conflict, and Developing Experiments…School DNA Evolution

The job of leadership is to orchestrate the conflict that arises in those discussions and develop experiments to find out how to push the frontier forward in an evolutionary way.

These words came from Ron Heifetz in an interview with David Creelman for the Creelman Research Library on thought leaders. The entire article (2009 vol. 2.5) is worth a read for all leaders. For school leaders embracing the changing landscapes of schools and education, I thought the piece was a #MustRead. [Hat tip to Tod Martin for sharing it with me.]

While I might spend hours examining the components of the article and Heifitz’s book that sparked the interview (The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, co-authored by Alexander Grashow and Marty Linsky), what struck me most at this time is the idea of ORCHESTRATING CONFLICT and DEVELOPING EXPERIMENTS. And I use the singular intentionally because I think the two parts are an essential pair of one, complex idea.

As educational leaders and school administrators, how are we orchestrating conflict and developing experiments? What a glorious verb “orchestrating” is. I picture a faculty as an orchestra (and I have pondered before if a principal is a conductor or principal violinist). With the current practice of subdividing a faculty into sections – English, math, science, etc. – like we subdivide an orchestra into instrumental sections, I hope we are orchestrating playing from the same sheets of music. I hope we are not merely gathered together in our orchestral round playing disjointedly from different sheets of music titled, “English,” “math,” “science,” etc. For these are just notes and lines from a symphony which is our world, not separate pieces altogether. But now, in this changing environment of education, it is no longer enough for leaders to orchestrate a faculty playing from the same sheets of music. Now, we must orchestrate conflict, too…so that we  might create new music and innovative ways of playing.

In the interview, Heifitz talked of zooming in and zooming out so that “one moves between high levels of abstraction and low levels of concrete action to discover where people start disagreeing.” Then, Heifitz explained that one would “identify the parties who have a stake in that situation and bring the tough questions to the centre of their attention.” Mind you, these are questions that don’t have easily discernible, textbook answers. These are questions for which the leader does not have current capacity to address. Such is the nature of adaptive leadership. “Adaptive context is a situation that demands a response outside your current toolkit or repertoire; it consists of a gap between aspirations and operational capacity that cannot be closed by the expertise and procedures currently in place.” Where will education and schooling be in 2020? 2030? 2050? Because we don’t know what education might look like in 3-5 years, we will need more and more adaptive leadership to orchestrate and navigate this evolution, revolution, or re-evolution. And we will need teams.

So, we must gather a room – an orchestra – that is smarter than any one person in the room. In a room full of people, the room is the smartest one in the room, right? (David Weinberger, Too Big to Know) From the orchestration of conflict, we must design, prototype, and implement experiments in the schoolhouse. We need R&D labs in schools. Of course, many schools have them, but very few are more than loosely organized, if organized at all. We must put forth these experiments so that we can learn by doing and grow developmentally from our experiments and iterative prototypes. In my opinion, a wave of the future for schooling will involve organizing and orchestrating these experiments more deliberately (and communicating clearly about these efforts with various constituencies including parents, alums, other schools, etc.).

As it stands, existing schools are likely to have schools within their school. Depending on the collection of teachers that a student has, one can experience a very different school than another student – even at the same school. So there is something like a startup within a school, if the school has a collection of teachers who are innovating practice and taking risks and implementing experiments. But are these players harmonizing together to create systemic change and coordinated enhancement? Such is a job of an adaptive leader who functions as part of the team as well as an orchestrator of the gap-closing between current capacity and aspirations.

About two weeks ago, sitting by the pool, I was re-reading Creative Thinkering by Michael Michalko. While reading page 63, I scrawled the following sketch on the inside book cover:

As Michalko described  a CEO using an idea drawer to juxtapose DNA and his business organization, I could see how school innovators could change the DNA of a school – slowly, over time…if loosely organized. But I could also see how this process could be sped up, more closely matching the rate of change in the world, if the innovators were orchestrated and systemically connected with purposeful R&D efforts. Then, in the interview with Heifitz, I read:

Leaders need to accept that adaptive contexts are not simply win-win games. A lot of the organization’s DNA can be conserved but some will need to be discarded. It’s a painful process….But because there are ways of engaging people so that they tolerate and accept losses on behalf of thriving in a changing world we can be positive in facing adaptive contexts. You can do it if you are compassionate about the strains of transition you are asking people to go through. Once you recognize this then you are far more likely to be successful in helping your organization find its way toward a greater adaptability to thrive in challenging times.

How are we orchestrating conflict and developing experiments in schools and education? How are systematizing and organizing these efforts into synergistic wholes? How are we taking leadership of the DNA changes that will happen regardless of us if we don’t lead them intentionally?


Creelman, David. “Ron Heifitz: Adaptive Leadership.” Creelman Research. 2009 vol. 2.5

[NOTE: In the past week, several people have asked me, “Bo, what’s a ‘process post?'” To me a process post is a place to think and not worry about getting all the pieces to fit together or all of the conventions right. It’s like a journal. I usually use a process post as I am working out some thinking in my mind. I generally set a time limit – like 30 minutes to an hour – and just write. Then, I publish what I have without feeling pressure to re-read and polish at that time. Whereas many of my posts are just waypoints on my paths of thinking, the process posts feel even rougher and more draft-y than a post not marked with “PROCESS POST.”]

9 thoughts on “PROCESS POST: Adaptive Leaders, Orchestrating Conflict, and Developing Experiments…School DNA Evolution

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  5. So true! Having just read the Heifitz book, it’s hard to feel stuck in a school without adaptive leadership. There are a few if us taking the risks to grow as teachers, but we aren’t workIng together because of lack of leadership in the “orchestra”. So the students really do experience a “school within a school”. The leaders don’t see the need to build capacity, so that best practices diffuse throughout the school. The school is becoming irrevalent for families with the means to go elsewhere. The challenge is “How do teacher leaders encourage reform efforts within the existing system?”

    • Karen, thank you so much for reading and commenting. A new post will publish in the next half hour that addresses your well-stated challenge. I would love to know what you think about this next pondering and idea set.

      In these days and times, I could not agree with you more – “it’s hard to feel stuck in a school without adaptive leadership.” When we put in the necessary sweat equity to really systematize change in schools – by empowering faculty and admin as a team to lead the change – then I think we might see some of the pre-existing schools really evolve in a quicker, deeper way. Of course, the new startups use a different method of change.

  6. Wow Bo, I read that entire article and it was terrific. I hope many other educational leaders will do so as well and try to adapt some of the ideas it contains. But I think this advice is pretty hard for many school leaders to put into practice—schools and their leaders often fear conflict and often try to be all things to all people.

    • John, thanks for the read and the comment. I agree with you completely about the challenge here. But as a character said in Ron Howard’s Backdraft movie about firefighting: “It’s the hard that makes it great. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it.”

      I’m not even sure leaders have a choice about whether they want to “be” adaptive leaders. Rather, I think those leaders who lead best will develop and practice adaptive leadership. If not, they will be replaced by leaders who will. Or their organizations will lag behind, become irrelevant, etc. I thought the Sony example of the iPod was a powerful cautionary tale for schools!

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