Adaptive Change vs. Technical Change: Definitions and Differences
Updated June 24, 2022
Organizations and institutions across all industries deal with challenges that often require adaptive or technical change in order to address the problem. Adaptive change and technical change are terms to describe solutions that address different types of situations. Understanding these two types of change can help you implement more effective solutions. In this article, we define adaptive change and technical change, outline the key differences between the two and provide examples of each.
What is technical change?
Technical changes are changes made in response to clearly defined issues or challenges. These solutions are relatively straightforward, and the leaders or experts within an organization can usually address them without consulting the rest of the company. For example, if the internet goes out in an apartment building, this is a straightforward problem with a straightforward solution. To address this, the property managers may call a wireless network technician to resolve the issue.
Leaders make technical changes in a short time frame, and people are usually receptive to the change or solution.
What is adaptive change?
Adaptive change refers to changes made to address more nebulous challenges or issues. Adaptive change stems from complex challenges that can be hard to identify and often present no obvious solution. Determining potential long-term solutions can involve experimenting with new approaches and practices. Adaptive changes typically require a collective effort and a cultural shift in values, beliefs, attitudes and approaches.
Adaptive change can take some time to fully implement and requires an ongoing process of thoughtful strategy, ongoing learning and collective support.
Related: What Is Adaptive Leadership?
Key differences between adaptive vs. technical change
There are several key differences between adaptive and technical changes. Understanding these differences can help you properly approach challenges. Here are some key differences between adaptive and technical change:
The circumstances necessitating change
Challenges that are complex, hard to identify and have no concrete solution usually require adaptive change. Systemic issues often require adaptive change because leaders address multiple factors. Alternatively, technical changes occur in response to a clearly defined problem or issue. These types of problems may even have a set protocol in place, which itself is a form of technical change.
The people making the change
Adaptive changes require the involvement of an entire group, whereas experts, authority and leadership can make executive decisions regarding technical changes.
The time required to implement change
Leaders implement adaptive changes over an extended period, whereas they implement technical changes promptly. Adaptive challenges typically entail multi-step changes can involve re-imagining an organization's identity or restructuring practices and procedures.
The response to change
People are generally receptive to technical changes because they recognize the need for the solution and know that leaders can easily implement this change. Adaptive changes often need more attention to execution and reception because they require everyone in the organization to make efforts toward the change.
Addressing adaptive challenges often requires a systemic overhaul because a singular, targeted solution doesn't resolve adaptive challenges. Instead, adaptive challenges require collective action, continuous learning and experimentation to determine the best solutions. Conversely, leaders and experts can easily resolve technical challenges themselves.
Adaptive changes generate long-term and sustained outcomes compared to technical changes. When leaders institute adaptive changes, the situation doesn't return to the way it was before. Through ongoing learning and a gradual change in habits, attitude and practices, adaptive changes can lead to transformative results that significantly improve the way an organization functions. When an organization addresses a technical challenge, however, the situation typically returns to the way it was.
Examples of adaptive and technical change
To better understand adaptive and technical changes, here are two examples of each:
Example of adaptive change: school board
A regional assessment determines that students at a high school are underperforming compared to other schools in their district. The school board strategizes ways to improve the performance of the student population and decides to replace resources in each classroom with the most up-to-date classroom technology. This is an adaptive change because it presents both teachers and students with a new way of doing things. It takes time to understand how to effectively use the new tools. However, once teachers have re-structured their teaching approaches with the new tools, they find that the students' academic performances improve.
Example of adaptive change: employee performance
A company's leadership team notices a steady decline in their employees' quality of work. Their previous attempts to address this issue have been unsuccessful because they haven't been able to determine the underlying causes of the issue. This situation presents an adaptive challenge because it requires learning, reflection and investigation to gain a thorough understanding of the problem. After this reflection and investigation period, leadership decides to re-structure the current workflow by creating teams to facilitate collaboration.
Since employees previously worked independently, having to work with coworkers prompts an alternative approach. After a period of learning to work with one another, management discovers that the increased accountability that accompanies collaborative work improves the employees' overall performance.
Example of technical change: medical treatment
A patient arrives at the emergency room with a broken foot. There's a standard protocol and known solution for addressing this issue. The trained experts in this situation—the orthopedic surgeons, emergency room doctors, physician assistants and nurses—know which steps they need to take to fix this problem, making this a technical challenge. The technical change in this situation is surgery, putting on a cast or both, depending on the severity of the injury. The technical change is relatively short term, and eventually the patient returns to the way they were before the accident.
Example of technical change: power outage
A waste management facility experiences a power outage. The site manager follows the established protocol to turn on the back-up generator while an expert arrives to assess the situation. This technical change presents an immediate and predetermined solution, and when the expert repairs the main generator, operations at the facility return to normal.
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