Adaptive Change: What Will It Cost Them to Change?

By Scott Cormode

August 18, 2020

De Pree Journal

Adaptive change is painful. It costs someone something to respond to an adaptive challenge. It requires a lifestyle change. Think of my friend the smoker. One reason smokers don’t quit is that it is really hard to kick the habit. When someone tries to quit smoking, physiological symptoms appear (mostly about chemical addiction). There are social reasons too. It became a habit, a way of occupying the hands or something to do to fill the silences and relieve the stress. Even if we replace the physical need, the social need remains. That is true of lots of adaptive challenges. Changing a belief or a way of doing things is hard for me because I have built a lot of ideas around that belief and my routines around that way of doing things. It will be painful to change; it requires a lifestyle change.

Up to this point, I have avoided giving biblical examples because they are too easy to misunderstand until you have a mental picture of adaptive change. But now you have it. Adaptive change is like quitting smoking. It is painful. You can’t quit for someone else. It is like learning to ride a bike. You cannot just tell them: they need to experience it. So what does that look like in Scripture?

Think back to Mark 8, when Jesus explains what it means to be the Messiah. No one had more authority—more credibility—than Jesus. The disciples have seen Jesus do miracles. They have seen him calm the sea, walk on water, and feed the five thousand. They have no doubt heard that at Jesus’s baptism, God himself testified, “You are my Son.” None of us in our ministries is going to get a real voice from heaven. But Jesus did. After Peter has pronounced him Messiah, Jesus turns to the disciples and explains that their concept of the Messiah is mistaken. He explains that the Son of Man must suffer and die and rise in three days. According to the Gospel of Mark (8:32), “He spoke plainly about this.” And how did the disciples react? They told him he was wrong. This was an adaptive challenge in that Jesus asked them to give up a cherished belief.

How hard adaptive change is! Jesus himself, in all his authority, tried to explain something to them, and they told him he was wrong. Why? Because it would have been painful to recognize that he was right. What did the disciples sign up for? They expected a Messiah who would conquer the Romans. They expected a big throne for Jesus and little thrones for themselves—that’s why James and John were so interested in where they would sit. Why was this adaptive change hard? Because it meant giving up the thrones. If ever there was a moment when technical means would work toward adaptive ends, it was in Mark 8. Jesus had walked on water and had God himself testify on his behalf. None of us will ever have that kind of authority. But what happened? Adaptive change was so hard for the disciples—it would cost them so much—that Jesus himself could not convince them by using technical means. And if it did not work for Jesus, how is it going to work for you and for me?

Our next step builds on another key insight from Ronald Heifetz. “People don’t resist change,” he has said. “They resist loss.” People are not afraid of change. They are only afraid of changes that will cost them something. Let’s say someone shows up at my door and says, “Hello. I am from the IRS. We apologize, but there has been a terrible mistake. We owe you a million dollars. So here is a check.” What am I going to do? I’m going to cash the check. I would not resist that change. But, now let’s say that same person knocks on my door and says, “Hello. I am from the IRS. We apologize, but there has been a terrible mistake. You owe us a million dollars.” Do you think I’d resist that change? You bet I would.

This is a fundamental insight about change. Adaptive change is painful because people lose something; it costs them something. When we discussed Mark 8, we recognized that it cost the disciples something to recognize Jesus’s way of defining the Messiah. James and John pictured Jesus as coming into his kingdom and hoped to be seated at his right hand and his left. They really thought there would be thrones. When Jesus said he would suffer and die and rise, they had to recognize that they had it all wrong. It was going to cost them something to adopt Jesus’s mental model.

Scott Cormode

Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership, Senior Fellow

Senior Fellow De Pree Center Hugh De Pree Associate Professor of Leadership Development Fuller Theological Seminary Scott Cormode, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Max De Pree Center for Leadership and is the Hugh De Pree Associate Pr...

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