What is an Adaptive Action Lab?

Over the past couple of months, I’ve led Adaptive Action Labs around the world.  Each Lab was unique, but in every one, a team took advantage of the opportunity to break free from their most sticky issues. An Adaptive Action Lab is a new mode of support for teams facing complex challenges. They arrive with an apparently intractable issue and leave with concrete action plans and renewed energy and curiosity.

An Adaptive Action Lab is not training, because participants make real progress on their real work. It is not consulting, because all the relevant expertise and insight come from the participants themselves. It isn’t facilitation, because it provides models and methods that leverage old insights into innovation. It isn’t a retreat, because it launches a whole series of Adaptive Action cycles. It isn’t coaching, because individuals and groups teach and learn from each other while engaging in collective problem solving. It isn’t anything you’ve ever experienced before, so we call it by a new name: Adaptive Action Laboratory.

The purpose of the Labs is to help groups get unstuck, and the recent series demonstrates the creative ways groups find to get stuck in their chaos. It reminded me of how many different barriers can block a team’s progress, and how being stuck limits the ability to see creative options for action. I’ve also observed the many ways that Adaptive Action allows teams to generate options for action and bridge across barriers.  Some particular sticky issues may sound familiar, and the paths groups discovered may bring you hope. 

They won’t let us do it:

WHAT? A bunch of front-line service professionals saw the benefit of working together. They wanted to bust silos and build collaborative practice to serve their clients better.

SO WHAT? Informally and in many different ways they had implemented their vision of integrated service, but they were stuck. Signals from all management lines put up barriers to formalizing and scaling up their new practices. In the Lab, team members used the Landscape Diagram to reflect on their shared past and future. They discovered a powerful ally—clients.

NOW WHAT? The team will conduct a survey of clients before and after the informal integration, calculate benefits, document risks, and make a joint presentation to managers and stakeholders. They can’t be sure their management will approve, but they can be sure that they’ll learn more about clients’ needs, and at worst they will strengthen their informal connections and capacity to collaborate. 


WHAT? A veteran in an internal consulting group had seen it all. Every year of service had added expertise, but it had also added cynicism. He regularly and brutally shot down suggestions from younger members of the team.

SO WHAT? Cliques formed among staff members. Some supported “experience and wisdom,” others supported “energy and experimentation.” Over time the battle lines were so strong that clients began to comment. The Lab brought together leaders from the two factions. Using Same & Different, the group began to explore the possibilities of “experience and energy” and “wisdom and experimentation.” You could taste the energy shift in the room.

NOW WHAT? Individuals created plans for themselves and their projects to leverage these new possibilities.  Two task forces were formed to explore what the linkages would mean for product and service development.  An online conversation was launched to share the excitement with other members of the team, collect their thoughts, and inspire their action. Our stodgy veteran volunteered to lead the project.

The obvious solution isn’t working:

WHAT? As part of a quality strategy, the executive team mandated a new dashboard measure that touched every part of the organization. A cross-functional team was named to coordinate implementation within a tight timeline and minimal budget.

SO WHAT? The team had begun its work two month prior with plans to communicate the expectation, educate on implementation methods, and measure performance.  They came to the Lab feeling really stuck because none of their efforts had “moved the needle.”  The Lab began with a CDE Model analysis of the project itself. The first and most obvious pattern was that they were focusing on exchange without a clear picture of the relevant differences in the system. 

NOW WHAT? They turned their various communication messages into simple rules to support a coherent pattern of performance. They plan to meet with major stakeholders and key process owners to understand how the simple rules will play out for them. The team expects that these conversations will inform a more diversified, and therefore more effective, cross-organization implementation of the dashboard measure. And, if that doesn’t work out, they’ll begin their Adaptive Action again. 

It is incredibly exciting to watch groups come in disheartened and frustrated and leave with energy and excitement for the future. At a site this week, we had eight different teams working on eight different issues. In three days, all of the groups moved from stuck to energized.  

Have you or your team ever been stuck in these ways? What other ways have you found to grind to a halt? How might an Adaptive Action Laboratory help you to find your breakthrough opportunity? Tell us about your sticky issue!

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