The practice of adaptive leadership

Score: 4/5

I bought this book because some company (forgot which one exactly) recommended this to their employees. It is a guide of things to consider when you want to change something about an organization.

For organizational changes, real life experience is often more useful than a book, but this book did a good job at helping you think more systematically and from angles that may have not crossed your mind in the past. It provides a useful lens through which I can view the changes I experienced at Google and at Deepmind.

The following highlights by themselves look quite self-evident, but it can be quite complicated when I combine them with real life experience. The book poses many questions that are worth ruminating over. I copy-pasted some highlights here to help myself and the readers to get a sense of what the book is like. It does not mean to be exhaustive.

Highlights from the book:

  • There is a myth that drives many change initiatives into the ground: that the organization needs to change because it is broken. The reality is that any social system (including an organization or a country or a family) is the way it is because the people in that system (at least those individuals and factions with the most leverage) want it that way.
  • (Authority is) power entrusted for service–“I look to you to serve a set of goals I hold dear.” Authority, then, is granted by one or more people on the assumption that you will then do what they want you to do: centrally in organizational life to promptly provide solutions to problems.
  • Formal authority is insufficient. The formal authority of your position is not enough to effect change. (You tell sales managers to spend more time mentoring high-potential associates, but they do not comply.)
  • Here are some characteristic themes that often show up in organizations’ folklore: • What happened when someone disagreed openly with the boss • Why someone (especially a senior manager or executive) was fired or resigned from the company • How the person with the longest tenure in the organization managed to achieve such longevity • Why the founders created the organization, and why they left (or stayed) • What happened at last year’s holiday party that people are still talking about • What happened at the last off-site for senior managers • Who wields the real power on the board • Who the CEO confides in and listens to • How the organization scored a big success or recovered from a big failure
  • Figure out the group’s default interpretations. If it is not obvious, get on the balcony and track the group’s responses to several different problems, looking for patterns. For example, do group members generally seek someone outside (a new competitor, a supplier) to blame for their problems?
  • For example, do you form close bonds by sitting around and telling interesting stories? Making jokes? Delivering above expectations? Doing favors? Listening attentively? Drawing out other people’s stories? What’s your style? And what additional styles could you master?