Learning, Adaptive Leadership, and Bottom-Up Politics
by Adam Robbert
My earlier posts on climate change and adaptive problems received some very helpful responses from readers (thanks for the great sources everyone, keep them coming!) I’m reposting some of the sources below with some notable quotations attached.
The loss of the stable state means that our society and all of its institutions are incontinuous processes of transformation. We cannot expect new stable states that will endure for our own lifetimes.
We must learn to understand, guide, influence and manage these transformations. We must make the capacity for undertaking them integral to ourselves and to our institutions.
We must, in other words, become adept at learning. We must become able not only to transform our institutions, in response to changing situations and requirements; we must invent and develop institutions which are ‘learning systems’, that is to say, systems capable of bringing about their own continuing transformation.
The task which the loss of the stable state makes imperative, for the person, for our institutions, for our society as a whole, is to learn about learning.
What is the nature of the process by which organizations, institutions and societies transform themselves?
What are the characteristics of effective learning systems?
What are the forms and limits of knowledge that can operate within processes of social learning?
What demands are made on a person who engages in this kind of learning? (Schon 1973: 28-9)
Technical problems are well defined. Their solutions are generally known. Those with expertise and organizational capacity can solve them. Building a filtration plant is complicated but there are clear procedures and precedents for hiring qualified experts, calculating costs, developing construction timelines, etc.
Adaptive challenges are not so well defined. The answers are not known in advance. All the needed information to make decisions is unavailable. Many different stakeholders are involved. Even when a solution is discovered, no single group can impose it on the others. Most environmental problems, such as climate change, are adaptive. In contrast to technical problems, merely throwing money at an adaptive problem rarely, if ever, works. “Engineering,” as the NYC DEP Commissioner involved in the watershed said perceptively, “can’t do everything.”
Applying technical solutions to adaptive challenges constitutes the single biggest waste of time and resources in addressing environmental issues. Yet it happens time and again. Often because people rise to high positions of authority precisely because of their expertise in solving technical problems. Solving problems, and solving them quickly, is what we expect of our “leaders”.
Adaptive leadership, on the other hand, involves distinguishing technical problems from adaptive challenges and then mobilizing people to engage in adaptive work. While technical problems tend to resolve themselves quickly with the application of money and expertise, adaptive problems play out very differently over time. A step forward is followed by a step back, with people experiencing distress and conflict as a result. Harnessing this disequilibrium and making sure it stays productive is another central task of adaptive leadership.
Recorded on 23 January 2012 in New Theatre, East Building.
The panel will discuss the political implications of giving power to ordinary people in an era when the nation-state has lost its primacy as a political actor. The event launches the book Bottom-up Politics: an agency-centred approach to globalisation.
Helmut Anheier is professor of sociology at the Hertie School of Governance, Berlin.
Mient Jan Faber is Professor Emeritus at the Free Universit, Amsterdam and visiting professor at the University of Houston.
Marlies Glasius is Professor of Citizens Involvement in War Zones and Post-Conflict Zones at the Faculty of Social Sciences, VU University Amsterdam, and a Visiting Fellow at the LSE Human Security and Civil Society Research Unit.
Mary Kaldor is professor of Global Governance and director of the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, LSE.