Adaptive Change: You Cannot Quit Smoking For Someone Else

August 20, 2020

De Pree Journal

Imagine that you go to see a cardiologist. The doctor tells you that you have a problem. You need to lose weight, quit smoking, and have heart surgery. Which of those things can the doctor do for you? Well, certainly the heart surgery. No one should try operating on their own bodies. But can the doctor lose weight for the patient? Can the doctor quit smoking for you? Of course not. There are some problems that no expert can solve for someone else—no matter how gifted or caring the expert is. You can’t quit smoking for someone else.

Let’s not leave that statement too quickly. Suppose you have a friend who loves you very much. In fact, you have the best friend anyone has ever had. Can that friend quit smoking for you? No, your friend cannot. But I just told you that your friend loved you very much. Surely if you love someone, you should be able to quit smoking for them. But you cannot. Every leader must be absolutely convinced of that if you are going to lead God’s people through change—because time and again you will be tempted to believe (and your people will tell you in many and varied ways) that if you really love someone, you should be able to solve their problems for them.

We are called to help people to grow, to change—indeed, to be transformed. But our most important goals often lie just beyond our control. How do you help someone change who desperately needs to change, but desperately does not want to change—and how do you do it when you know there are some problems that no outsider can fix? You can’t quit smoking for someone else. So what do you do?

We are going to distinguish between two kinds of problems—those you can fix for someone else and those you can’t. And we are going to separate these kinds of problems because the methods we use to address those problems need to be radically different. Ronald Heifetz calls the fixable issues “technical problems,” and he calls the other kind “adaptive challenges.”

Technical problems have a solution, and by a solution he means that things will go back to the way they once were. For example, once I had a student who was the executive pastor of a very large church in West Los Angeles. They had just built a large wing onto the building. One Saturday night a pipe burst, and my student showed up on Sunday morning to discover that the entire new wing was flooded with six inches of water. This was an enormous problem. It took them weeks to assess the damage and clean up the mess. Then there were months and months of reconstruction. But a year and a half later, they had fixed the problem. Everything was back to normal. That was a technical problem. It was solvable. With a technical problem, some combination of money, time, and expertise can make the problem go away.

Let me give a quick way to distinguish technical problems from adaptive challenges. Learning to change the tire on a bike is a technical problem. I can give you step-by-step instructions. You can look up an answer on YouTube. An expert can do it for you. And when you are done, the problem goes away; things go back to the way they were. Learning to ride a bike is an adaptive challenge. You have to experience it. I cannot give you foolproof instructions. No expert can learn to ride for you. Then, once you learn, you will never go back to a time when you don’t know how to ride.

We are accustomed to thinking that all problems are technical—that if we work a little harder and try a little more, we can fix whatever is wrong. Indeed, that is how we usually judge our leaders. We think of successful leaders as people who make things happen; they fix problems. But some problems cannot be fixed; they cannot go away. Think about smoking. Say you heed your doctor’s advice and you quit smoking. And then, after a few months, you go back to the way things once were—that is, you start smoking again. Is the problem “fixed”? Of course not. Things will never be the same again. You can’t quit smoking and then take it up again and act as if that has “solved” a problem. This is why Heifetz created the term “adaptive challenge.” With an adaptive challenge, things will never be the same again.

Adaptive challenges occur, according to Heifetz, “when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge.” Look back at that definition. Adaptive challenges happen when we ask people to adopt new beliefs, when we hope people will pursue better values, or when we help people see that the ways they have been doing things in the past will not work for them. Well, that’s the exact moment when innovation is necessary. There is no meaning-making innovation without new beliefs, values, and actions. Heifetz did not have Christianity in mind when he wrote about adaptive change. Indeed, he was more interested in large social problems. But his work is crucial for those of us who lead in God’s name because of a key insight Heifetz makes about adaptive challenges. You cannot use technical means to reach adaptive ends. In other words, the techniques that we all learned for solving technical problems will not work if we want to change people’s beliefs, their values, or the ways that they always do things.

Let me illustrate how it won’t work, and then we will talk about why it won’t work. Let’s start with an easy example. Suppose I have a friend who needs to quit smoking. What’s the first thing we all do? Well, we treat it like the problem is solely about the transfer of information. I would try to explain to my friend why smoking is bad for him. Exactly what do I expect to happen when I do that? Do I really think that my friend will turn to me and admit my wise counsel? “Thank you for explaining that. I did not see these giant warning labels on the side of a cigarette packet. I guess I’d better quit now.” Of course not!

But we try the explain-it-to-him plan because that’s what we know. If my friend needed to learn how to change a bicycle tire (or change a diaper), then I could help him by explaining the process of change. Transfer of knowledge would work then. So, what would you guess I might do when I discover that my smoker friend was not bowled over by my knowledge? When explaining does not work, I will try the next thing. I’ll say the same thing, only louder—or with more emotion. But we all know that’s not going to work. I can’t tell him to quit. He has to discover for himself that he needs to quit and that he wants to go through the pain that quitting will entail.

But I don’t want to give the impression that there is no role for explaining things. For example, once my friend decides to quit, there is a lot I can do to explain to him about how hard it will be. I might explain, say, about the addictive qualities of nicotine so that he does not try to quit cold turkey. Perhaps I introduce him to nicotine gum so that he can taper off the addiction. If he did not know that nicotine was addictive, he might try to quit and find the cravings so overpowering that he gives up before he has even started. So there is a crucial role for explaining. But explaining will not make someone change.  You cannot quit smoking for someone else.

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